My latest article is about contemporary art in Beijing, for the June issue of Qryx, the in-flight magazine for Qatar Airways (the world's 5-star airline).
Whirlwind visit to the HQ of China'a CCTV station for a meeting provided the opportunity to experience the capital city for a few hours. A few welcoming changes to the city's infrastructure...though the haze still looms...
Ridiculously delicious...and only 4 RMB (about US $0.60)...but EACH bite is worth a million dollars. Shame that even the BEST Chinese restaurants outside of mainland China don't serve this. The chefs at this company cafeteria in Hangzhou deserve more attention than they get.
There is no hiding in the fact that I love planes. I think it is obvious when you look at my website. Therefore, when I arrived in Beijing, someone in the Chinese government I know strongly advised me to go to visit the China Aviation Museum to get up close and personal with some military aircraft! I could not resist to go and see for myself the splendour of this place.
The China Aviation Museum was established in 1986. It is located in Xiaotangshang Town, changing district. Covering an area of 720,000 square meters. It opened to the public in 1989, and expanded in 2009. There is a collection of more than 300 aircraft, ground-to-air-missiles, anti-aircraft weapons, radars, with over 15,000 other artefacts. It is the only one of its kind in China where you can go close to aircraft. There is also the old plane of Mao Zedong. I must say that when I got there it was a very exciting feeling for me because of my love affair with aviation. I felt like a kid in a candy shop. If you love planes, as I do, then you would just adore this museum. It’s awesome. There is nothing like this in the rest of the country- not even close enough (perhaps even the rest of Asia!).
I mean, for example, I could not believe my eyes that I was so close to a Russian built IL-62! I last flew on this plane back in 1989 on Aeroflot Russian Airlines (I would love to see how they’ve changed now in all these years), and in those days I still recall the loud engines, the steep climb and the unique smell of the kerosene oozing from the aircraft even when sitting inside it! In 1989 it was impossible to get right underneath the aircraft because of security reasons in Russia etc., but here I was in Beijing in 2012 standing right under the wings and fuselage of this Russian beauty (thanks to the China Aviation Museum). It was also fun to see that people were having a picnic sitting underneath the belly of an IL-62. Now, which museum or airport will allow you to do that? None.
They also house Chairman Mao’s official diplomatic plane, the Russian built IL-18 aircraft. It’s complete with Mao’s in-flight bed and the galley. Then there is the lavish display of Chinese F-6 fighters, which were used in many wars, including the 1962 India-China war over their borders (which China won). With such great aviation military ability, countries like India seem dwarfed compared to the mighty power of China. The media hype is always to create mass hysteria.
The museum houses planes from all around the world including Pakistan, the USA (actually these are captured DC-3s, C-47s, and even an Apache Helicopter), Britain, and Zimbabwe.
How do I get there?
You can either take a taxi from downtown Beijing, which will take around an hour, and would cost about RMB 200 to go and come back (or more depending on how long the driver will stay there). Alternatively you can take the metro to
How much does it cost?
You can walk into the museum for free. However some of the major attractions inside have an admission charge. These include Chairman Mao’s IL-18 (RMB 10), F-6 aircraft attraction (RMB 10), and the aviation hanger (RMB 20). There is also a small military simulator that people can try to fly in, which may cost around RMB 30 for a 5-minute experience.
The JW Marriott Hotel Beijing is located right next to it’s more fashionable brother, The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing. Both properties are part of the same family of hotels and of the same owner; however, there are considerable open differences between the two. Located in the capital’s fashionable up-market Chaoyang District, the JW Marriott Hotel Beijing is part of the China Central Place, a impressive complex consisting of over 230,000 square meters of office and retail space. Getting to the international airport is not a problem either as it’s only a 40 minute taxi ride (pending Beijing’s notoriously horrible traffic jams) , or you may want to take the metro from Dawanglu station, which is just a stone throws away from the hotel’s lobby.
It’s maybe not as flamboyant and luxurious as it’s neighbour, though the JW Marriott does excel in a class of it’s own. Take the lavishly decorated lobby for example which complete with a tea tasting section where guests can experience some true Chinese customs while they are waiting to check-in, or even if they are just whiling away the time. One of the key physical aspects that connect the two properties together are their MICE facilities (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, and Exhibitions) with over 1,240 square meters of Grand Ballroom space which can be connected to halls of The Ritz-Carlton Beijing next door.
The 588 well-appointed guestrooms and suites form part of a refined oasis that offers adequate customer service in a family-friendly atmosphere. The JW Marriott Hotel Beijing tends to cater more for families rather than captains of industry, so therefore, I believe, this is one of the reasons why it is not so expensive. Guests at the JW Mariott Beijing who stay any one of the seven executive floors can enjoy the various facilities of the Club Lounge, which is open until midnight everyday – provided you manage to get a seat as it can get busier than the hotel’s restaurants sometimes.
While the views from across the windows of these cosy rooms may not be as beautiful as you would assume- do you really want to stare that at that factory chimney? – it’s the décor inside that makes you feel welcomed. The rooms are themselves are something to marvel at. Just some of the highlights include but not limited to: exquisite marble bathrooms with separate tub and rain shower, 42-inch flat screen televisions, bedside BOSE stereo system, designer bathroom amenities by Aromatherapy Associates, designer mouthwash by ‘Whisper’, iPod connectors, flat screen television in bathroom, twice-daily maid service, and Nespresso coffee machine. The best part of the rooms are the beds. Thick, ergonomic mattresses neatly cast to your body, lined with a plush 7cm, natural dove feather mattress topper with pillows that you can comfortably hide yourself at night like a baby inside a womb.
A few jewels to marvel at lurk around too. Occupying over 250 square meters, the spectacular health club, 24-hour gym, spa with 9 treatment rooms, and the breathtaking heated swimming pool provide a sense of tranquillity even on the nosiest of nights in the city. During our stay, there was a lavish (and understandably loud) wedding party outside the lobby area, while inside the spa and swimming pool people were treating themselves to treatments as if they are on a paradise beach. The contrasts were enough to prove how well the management organised and had everything laid out nicely.
The hotel’s three restaurants, Asia Bistro, Nobu Japanese restaurant, and CRU Steakhouse provide many opportunities to explore the various gastronomic pleasures on offer. The former offers a festival of open kitchens offering a variety of dishes from around the world including Indian, Japanese, Malaysian and local Chinese dishes. While the CRU offers one of the best oysters and steaks in town. The hotel’s restaurants are designed in such a way that once you complete your meal, the path leads directly to either the ultra chic Loong Bar, or you can sit and do people watching at the equally smart Lobby Lounge and count the number of Louis Vuitton bags you see going past.
CRU Steakhouse - a review
While some of Beijing’s steakhouses might put on airs and graces, CRU at the JW Marriott Beijing has that scruffy, laid-back charm that it wouldn't be in a 5-star hotel had the food not been as good as I had experienced.
Tentative and polite staff are always at hand to make sure that the few customers that are present at the otherwise quiet restaurant are provided the best possible service that they can.
The main events to savour at this 144-seat restaurant are beef, which hails from either Australia or Qingdao, and oysters, which hail from the fresh waters of France. The whole fusion of this Euro-American crackles on the elaborately large charcoal grill. Its best to go easy on the starters; a handful of freshly imported ‘gillardeau French no 2 oysters (marennes oleron)’ and the ‘CRU crab cake (blue swimmer crab with caper berries & remoulade sauce), was a mere distraction from the steak which was to follow suit. The oysters at the CRU steakhouse were really fresh, almost as if the chef had just brought them from the beach. The taste, smell, and the texture of the oyster meat was the key to success here. Slightly salty in taste but that’s a very good thing because it means it is rich in omega-3, EPA, and DHA- the natural ingredients inside the fish oil. If you eat food like this everyday, not only you’ll be healthier, but there would be no need to purchase fish oil supplements and what have you in the market these days.
The high-end service was brilliant, meanwhile, most notably from the restaurant manager, Murphy Cui, who himself is also a sommelier managed the rare double of being infectiously passionate (small wonder: the wine list is superb) without being snobbish or interfering. For the oysters, Mr. Cui recommended the finest ‘Matua Valley, Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2011’, and for the steak the experienced sommelier recommended a fine glass of ‘beringer Califoirnia’. The fruity luscious taste of the white wine goes well with the fresh oysters. It’s a very healthy approach to life as they say in the French coast and in the Mediterranean.
The steak ribeye was soft and juicy on the inside and slightly charged on the outside, and truly rich in flavour. The side parts that accompanied it were shallots, cherry tomatoes, butter bean and a side order of rocket salad. Steak fans may not be too pleased with the lack of presentation paid to the plate when the steak was presented – compared to some of the best steak I have had, the side dishes are equally important as the steak itself. Having 2 or 3 shallots and a few butter beans is not suffice for someone who wants pure quality, as well as quantity.
The dessert dish in the end was a winner. A garnish of three desserts- tiramisu, walnut & vanilla ice-cream, and a mango & strawberry sorbet to die for. If you love a good steak, and oysters – like I do- then go and try a nice meal at the CRU Steakhouse. It’s probably one of Beijing’s finest.
In all my years that I have been visiting Beijing, I never had the time to go and visit the relatively unknown and beautiful Cuandixia Village, located around 60 kilometres on the outskirts of the city. That time finally came last weekend when I had a day to while away my time. I vowed to myself that I would get up early and go to see this gorgeous village. Not even the windy weather would have stopped me going there.
With a rich history going back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, Cuandixia is a small village of old stone cottages well placed on the curve of the great ‘Western Road’ that led from Beijing to the great mountains of Shannxi Province (and onto Xi’an etc.).
Since 2009, the village has been turned into a tourist attraction. You pay RMB 35 to enter the village, and almost every house either is a little shop selling souvenirs, or will put visitors up overnight or serve meals. The village is very pleasant to visit, and though the people who live there go about their daily lives they are very welcoming and open to host tourists for overnight stays or meals. It’s not artificial as is the case with the vast amount of historic attractions in China. It’s a real village with lots of rich history and culture (and you may even get to hear many myths and stories from the locals if you can converse in Mandarin), but one which the local government decided to turn into a business so that everyone can enjoy its benefits. Thankfully, there is none of the background Chinese music that you normally hear in most Chinese tourist attractions; and there are no touts that you normally see either. And most importantly, Cuandixia is thankfully not a beehive for tourists (yet), and so there is none of the artificial ambiance that we sadly see in places like Yangshuo (which has sadly lost its sense of the real Chinese culture I am sorry to say- do you really want to see a Starbucks, KFC, MacDonald’s in a national heritage tourist site?!).
I spent around three hours wandering around the narrow passageways and looking at the cottages, and ended up having lunch by myself in one of the homes. The chicken and other meat are cooked fresh. So if you order a chicken then most probably the chicken has been killed and cooked in front of you. It may not a beautiful sight, but its fresh and healthy.
Many of the homes (including the one where I had lunch) are constructed as four tiny buildings around a central courtyard. It’s best advised that you take a good pair of sturdy shoes to walk up and down the hilly lanes. In fact, if you want to get a panoramic view of the whole village then its best to go up the hill on the opposite side. The journey takes around half an hour to the peak, and depending on the weather the view can be magical.
The whole area surrounding Cuandixia is known as the ‘Cuanbai Scenic Area’. It’s situated in Zhaitang Town, in the Mentougou District, covering an area of 46.6 square kilometers. Apart from Cuandixia Village, there is the Double Stone Village, the Boyu Village and the Huanglingxi Village. Cuandixia comes across as the most atrarctive to the eye.
As mentioned that the village lies on the great ‘Western Road’. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the "Western Road" from Beijing led through the mountain ranges and connected to far-off Shanxi. Along this road were small villages that catered for tired travellers, and this included Cuandixia as well. In those days the villages would act as ‘bed & breakfast’ pit stop stations. The Cuanbai Scenic Area is also a fascinating place to visit for anyone specializing in history, culture, architecture, or sociology. There is so much to absorb, more than just your average mud hut.
These days the highways have replaced the ancient dusty roads, yet the people are living in a similar fashion (albeit with some modern creature comforts such as good working infrastructure of water, sanitation, gas, and electricity). The people living in the village do have televisions, radios, hot water, and heating systems to protect against the harsh northern winters. However the facilities are, of course, not glamorous as one may find in the cities.
What used to take a day on a horseback ride from Beijing to Cuandixia, now takes around 3 hours by car. If there is any hint of what life must have been like in ancient Beijing, then this route to Cuandixia would be the perfect answer for you.
Arriving at the village still gives some sense of the same kind of feeling that might have provided the ancient travellers, as a mountain curve is drawn back suddenly by a neat curve of the road and the village appears on the right hand side, wedged securely against one side of the valley. There is no hustle & bustle of touts running towards you as you arrive, and it’s all very tranquil and calm. It’s just the perfect way to start a small holiday if you want to get away from the noise of the city.
The majority of the artwork that remains in the village dates back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); while the importance of the science of Fengshui was adapted from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) era.
Cuandixia can be reached by car on a weekday in approximately two hours, depending on the traffic. The best way to get to Cuandixia is to take a metro to Pingguoyuan Station (last stop at line 1), and then hire a cab. The cost should be RMB 300 for a round trip. The driver will take you there, wait for you there, and then bring you back. I spent around 3 hours at the village, and the trip cost almost the whole day. I happened to come here on a very cold, and wet day (it was raining cats and dogs). But I had to make the most of it. The people are nice here. If you are nice enough then they may even lend you an umbrella. From Pingguoyuan Station you can take bus number 929 if you wish. However, despite it costing much less than a taxi the bus will be a hassle for you. This is especially true if you have kids or if you are a photographer and want to stop to take photos on the way (which you can only do if you hire your own car). The bus makes frequent stops, will take a long time, and its just not a comfortable ride.
Where to stay
It’s best to book an overnight stay in one of the many courtyards that have rooms available for rent. Accommodations are basic but generally clean. The prices per person per night range from RMB 60 to RMB 80 depending on the family who is renting the room.
I arrived at a miserably cold and wet Beijing from a warmer Shanghai a few days ago, and could not wait to go back to Wudaokou. Back in 2004, and 2005, I used to live close to Wudaokou in a place called Shangdi (Beijing's silicon valley). When I went back this time I could hardly recognise the place. It's become all westernised with KFC, Macdonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut- you name it, every international food chain brand under the sun is present here. There is hardly a whisker in sight of any real authentic Chinese culture left here (sad...very sad).
Wudaokou is close to Beijing University, and Tsinghua University (the Oxford and Cambridge equivalent of China), and so there are a large number of students, including foreign students. The area is also has a strong community of Korean and Japanese people, and along with their culture they bring excellent food to the area. While I was here, I really wanted to try an authentic Korean cuisine since I had not tried it for such a long time. Back in the days in 2004-2005 Wudaokou was not that well known internationally. There was a popular bar called Propaganda next to the Wudaokou station on line 13, which is still around and still provides the same excellent service it did back in the days.
I tried one of the best Korean restaurants in this part of the city. The Korean restaurant is called Nana Casual Snack, and offers some of the best Korean food around. The staff are very tentative, and exceedingly welcoming. I ordered a dish of Korean style dumplings, and a dish a kimchi rice with a fried rice. To wash it all down I ordered some Korean style orange juice, and some nice Korean Chamisul Soju (Korean Wine 19%!).
The restaurant seats around twenty people at the most, and because it is so good so there is sometimes a queue to get a table (but its well worth waiting for). The ambiance is nice, its clean, and above all else the food is just awesome…it will blow your mind away. I am very careful on where I eat and drink when I am travelling on a holiday, and I must say that if you love Korean cuisine, then Nana Casual Snack is good stuff. Oh, and the menu is in English as well as in Korean and Chinese. Normally what you find is that most Korean restaurants in China have a menu only in Korean and Chinese which drives away the western dinars. However, Nana Casual Snack does a good job. I was pleased, and I am proud to say that I left with a nice smile on my face, and a belly filled up with good delicious food.
How to get to Nana Casual Snack?
Nana Casual Snack is located behind the Wudaokou metro station on line 13, and is surrounded by many other Korean restaurants and bars. If you get lost then give them a call at 010-8237-0500. Try it, you won’t regret it!
Alitalia's 'Juliet Juliet' having some interesting problems at Beijing Capital Airport. The Italian First Officer lost his temper and started shouting at the ground staff from the window....'Hurry up guys!' (of course, he wasn't using such polite language)...in an era when time is money in the aviation industry there is seldom room for failure...so, therefore, next time you are delayed....there is no point blaming the pilot (he's on your side!)...
I have always wondered what the Lufthansa Centre in Beijing is all about. I have been to Beijing many times but never got the chance to go and have a look at this widely talked about building. ‘Lufthansa Centre? In Beijing?’ naturally such questions were constantly being popped up in my mind. So finally, earlier this year I had a chance to go and see the famous area. Apart from being popular for being the China Headquarters for Lufthansa German Airlines, this building, which is owned by the Lufthansa Group, is also well known for the 20-year old award-winning Kempinski Hotel Beijing. The location could not have been any better as its located only around 40 minutes away from the airport by taxi, and around a similar time by the metro. The airport express train is only a one-station hop away from the Lufthansa Centre.
The lavish lobby is one of the few in Beijing that provides natural light to enter the foyer through the huge glass roof. It’s marvellous décor is complete with mahogany, teak, as well as expensive designer leather sofas.
Able to accommodate up to 1,200 people, the hotel possesses 526 well appointed guestrooms and suites, including 4 executive floors. The hotel was built to highlight the best of German hospitality and to make it home away from home for German and Swiss executives coming to Beijing for a business trip. Indeed, because of the hotel’s close proximity to the foreign embassies, and airline offices, so therefore it makes sense that most of the guests are diplomats and other similar professionals. Which is one of the key reasons why the hotel has been the crew base for Swiss International Airlines, and Lufthansa German Airlines. However, it can be safely said that the hotel’s rooms seem to have seen their hey days in yesteryear. The ambiance, the smell, and general aroma has faded in time, and it’s clear to see. Of course, there is that flair of elegance.
The rooms themselves decor appear to have been renovated but it all looks ancient compared to the sheer modernity of the newer 5-star hotels that are cropping up in Beijing and other cities in China. The staff are very tentative and caring, and it’s not their fault if things don’t go well as planned. I had to change my room as the one I was offered smelt of cigarettes- now that was surprising as the hotel is meant to be smoking free. The beds are comfortable, which is perhaps the most important thing about any hotel. On saying this, the hotel’s management are doing a splendid job in making sure that the quality of the Kempinski brand is kept going strong, and especially with the challenges that they are facing in the booming hospitality industry in China.
All of the rooms have modern amenities such as a master control box, which allows you to switch on or off the electricity, call for the concierge, and even control the television from the comfort of your bed. Then there is wireless internet, and Kempinski’s own branded amenities. The views are not all that great from the windows, and what’s makes it challenge is the myriad of high rise building erupting around the hotel that block the beautiful skyline which guests in the early days used to enjoy from their rooms. The mini-bar is well stocked, and contains German, and Swiss goodies such as Ricola, and Weis Schwarzwalder Kiefch Waffee.
The crème of the hotel are its superb food & beverage outlets. There are a total of seven distinctive restaurants and bars offering everything including traditional German cuisine at the much loved Paulaner Bräuhaus, Japanese cuisine at Honzen, Dragon Place for Chinese cuisine, and even Italian cuisine at the Trattoria la Gondola. The thing that differentiates the Kempinski Beijing from all the others is that this is one of the few hotels in China that offers something else apart from just a typical Italian, Chinese or Japanese cuisine because that’s what all the other luxurious hotels in the market offer.
Those with a sweet tooth would love the Kempi Deli, an award-winning German style delicatessen and coffee bar offering home favourites such as ‘schokokuchen mit kirschen (chocolate chip cake with cherries)’. It’s well worth a visit.
Paulaner Bräuhaus at the Kempinski Beijing
Located in the beautiful gardens of the 20-year old Kempinski Hotel in Beijing, the Paulaner Bräuhaus, which is as old as the hotel itself, is configured to look like a German beer garden cum a restaurant. The whole complex is owned by the Lufthansa Group, and hence it’s name also is ‘The Lufthansa Centre’. The area is an expat haven for Germans living in Beijing. The German School of Beijing, and the German Embassy are very close too. So it’s no surprise that slap bang in the middle of it all is one of the most German restaurant’s. It’s best to book a table in advance as it does get crowded fairly quickly, and especially during the weekend and evenings.
The food is better than fine, though certainly not light, by any means. The chefs at the Paulaner do feed like there is no tomorrow. Though mainly an expat enclave, the Paulaner is actually more popular with the local folk. I would hate to generalise, however on the whole it is a fact that Chinese people adore beer, or anything to do with beer. Take China’s Snow Beer as a prime example of that. As of 2009, it is officially the best selling beer brand in the world, with annual sales of 61 million hectolitres, despite largely being sold only in China. Therefore, it is no surprise that Paulaner is doing so well with the city yuppies from across the road. Paulaner’s elegant, expensive interior, impeccable service, and regular live music add on to the attractions that this place offers.
Every dinar is presented with a breadbasket containing typical German style bread rolls, and also a plate with three types of bread dressings that include butter, ham paste, and cottage cheese.
The menu is purely German, with a slight hint of Austrian and Swiss cuisine. For starters, I went for the ‘linsensuppe mit frankfurter (lentil soup with frankfurter sausages cut into pieces, bacon)’. Considering that the restaurant was busy when I got there, I was surprised that the dish arrived within 4 minutes of me ordering it, and seemed to be just waiting to be served to anyone who wanted it. Equally well, I was not surprised that it was almost cold too. Now, either the chefs at the Paulaner have a remarkable talent for creating quick fire dishes, or it was made in advance and waiting in a pipeline to be served. Having a German restaurant in China would not make you feel as if you are in Germany, nevertheless, in terms of taste; I had to admit that the food was good.
The staff wore the traditional German costumes, and were very friendly and assisting, but sometimes it came across as dinars had to remind them and ask for minor but important things like salt and pepper.
Sticking to the German theme, I ordered a 1-litre glass of Halles beer, which sadly I did not end up finishing. I think I personally overestimated my ability to drink such large amounts of alcohol. However, more importantly of all, there was no way I could hold that massive beer glass with just one hand. Even a medium sized man like myself with an average sized hand felt like a baby holding a beer glass with two hands! But then again, I was in a German restaurant and it was all part of the good fun.
If the beer was not enough to fill me up on its own, then the next dish up was nothing short of a mammoth dish to eat. The ‘regenbogenforelle müllerin art (pan-fried rainbow trout with tomatoes, lemon juice and vegetables, sour cream dill sauce)’ did not look too pleasing, as it tasted. The presentation was dull and all you could see was a sleeping fish along with a few bits and bobs of vegetables. However, as you move away the skin gently then it tends to reveal the delicious pinkish meat of the fish, which is not only a feast for the eyes but also for the cake hole.
While Paulaner has branches in most of the bigger cities of China, where there is a considerably large amount of expats, the branch at the Kempinski Hotel in Beijing is the oldest and perhaps the most well-known because of its connection to the hotel and the Lufthansa centre in Beijing.
I landed in London on the 23rd of January (a week after my birthday!). Last year I managed to fly back to London from China on four occasions, though I could easily have stayed in China to do more travelling. This time I was planning to stay back in Suzhou for the Chinese New Year festivities, however at the last minute I decided to go to London for personal reasons (via 1 night in Shanghai, and then 4 days in Beijing).
It's great to be back though! It actually made up for the time I missed being with my parents during Christmas and the New Year festivities last year. The great thing about working in China is that you get to enjoy national holidays (and annual leave) while the rest of the world is working. It’s a lovely feeling because it’s not so busy in the UK. as it would be during the festive season like Christmas or the New Year.
It’s also nice landing into Heathrow Airport, especially if you have westerly winds because then you get to fly right over Central London. The views are just magical as the majority of London’s famous landmarks were visible. As the photos below illustrate, I also got beautiful glimpses of some cities from the sky (Doha, Kuwait as examples shown).
It was also nice to be invited by the team at Resonance FM 104.4 on the 31st of January to give a talk about China Culture and how my books are assisting expats in adjusting to life in China. The presenter was the evergreen veteran Journalist Rakesh K. Mathur who managed to present the programme despite being heavily jet-lagged and also suffering from a cold. Click HERE to listen to the recording. They also played music by Sayaka, a Japanese jazz musician and pieces from the modern and traditional Chinese opera.
_ Though China is going green, it is still very hazy around the big cities such as Beijing. The capital city was smothered in thick smog for weeks until a day before the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations (23rd January). If you were to fly over big cities such as Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, say five years ago, you’d never see the ground due to the smog and haze. On my stay last week during the Chinese New Year, the fireworks did not really help to make the situation any better. Beijing authorities started to release hourly account of PM2.5 levels just as year of dragon celebration began, and it just got worse as predicted. PM2.5** are tiny particulates released by car exhausts and factory chimneys that raise the risks of lung diseases, heart problems and dementia.
On the whole, since the Beijing 2008 Olympics, there has been some improvement. However judging from the recent PM figures, it will take a LONG time before we get to see a blue sky on a regular basis.
The good news is that at the start of 2010, around 8.6% of total energy consumption in China was from renewable sources, (it’ll be around 20% within 10-12 years*). The country is also on course to reduce its power consumption by 20% in the five years to the end of 2015. Their initiatives include building high-tech, comparatively cleaner, coal-fired power stations, as well as introducing other alternative technologies such as wind power (and even Nuclear Energy). The latter is on course to be on target for the year 2025 with at least a six-fold increase in increase in electricity from wind power. Until that happens, I think it’s best to wear a face mask as I had to do with during my 4 day stay in the capital (there is no shortage of these).
* Source: China Daily/Xinhuanet
** Source: The UK Guardian
From what seems as if it’s a large ancient Chinese coin from the distance is actual fact the top square shaped part of the prestigious Beijing Yintai Centre that houses the contemporary designed Park Hyatt Beijing with its 246 guestrooms and suites. Opened on the 18th of October 2008, the luxurious hotel is ideally situated right opposite the China World Trade Centre, and the futuristic CCTV building in Gaomao. It’s strategic location right on the highly prestigious Chang’an Avenue (which goes straight to Tiananmen Square), and next to Gaomao metro station gives the hotel a upper hand advantage to being well connected to all parts of Beijing, including being only 40 minutes from the international airport by car (when the traffic is not so bad).
The main entrance is actually hidden at the back of the hotel at Jianguomenwai Street, and is perfect for A-listers and celebs who want a bit of privacy when they come to reside at the hotel. The lobby itself is located on the 63rd floor, offering spectacular views across to the whole of the metropolis on a clear day and night. On a clear day, guests can see the main sights of the capital with the naked eye, including the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Tian Tan and the international airport.
The rooms are designed to offer the maximum of comfort for the guests, and everything just seems to be working around you and for you. Then you have the beautiful creature comforts that will leave you feeling totally spoilt. These include such luxuries as the heated toilet seat that automatically opens its lid once you enter the bathroom, the oversized rain shower, the extra wide Roman spa inspired bathtub cum Jacuzzi, heated floor in the bath, DVD player, Espresso machine, and the extra comfortable 600-thread cotton duvet in which you can snuggle into. Not to mention the personal safe large enough to house a laptop, and a built in laptop charger, dual-line telephones, mood lighting, and even a humidifier upon request.
No matter how many times you enter the room there is that sheer ‘wow!’ factor that exemplifies the detail to immaculate attention that has been paid by the hotel staff. The essence and ethos is to create a sense of belonging so that this may become your home for the next 24 hours or more. It’s a kind of luxury that you can divulge into after a long flight or for a well-deserved rest away from your normal everyday surroundings. Smooth creamy and white colours adorn the walls and the marble flooring. Oh, and what can go wrong when you are provided with what essentially is a studio-house style room in the best location in the capital city of the world’s fastest economy.
The Park Hyatt Beijing is a one-stop hotel for all the personal needs of human life. Take for example the 24-hour gymnasium at the 6th floor, and the stunning 25-metre swimming pool, and the Tian Spa (also on the 6th floor) with five spa suites and rooms offering a collection of pampering treatments to cool down those tired heels.
In terms of food, you can’t go wrong when you are presented with a few magical treats such as the China Bar on Level 65; a stylish, atmospheric space for drinks and live jazz, while, on the very top floor at Level 66, the China Grill is an informal, internationally renowned eatery with a soaring glass pyramid ceiling. Somehow, it has to be the most magical places out of the whole hotel because the ambiance just captures all the senses with a magnetic touch.
Connecting the base of the three towers of the Beijing Yintai Tower, from the lower ground floor to Level 6, is Park Life, which was created by the well-renowned Japanese interior design firm SuperPotato. He highlight of the restaurants is The Private Room at Level 5, positioning itself as the most exclusive business entertaining venue in Beijing. With all these fine ingredients of dining, pampering and entertainment, the Park Hyatt Beijing proves to be a dynamic accommodation providing the finest in luxury lifestyle so that your stay is made as smooth and hassle free as possible.
In all my time in China I have seldom had the real opportunity to stay in the country during the festive Chinese New Year season (normally around the late January and early February area). However all that changed this year. I had initially planned not to stay in Beijing and was going to head straight to London from Chongqing (I was supposed to be on the Qatar Airways flight from Chongqing to London (Via Doha)). But destiny allowed me to change my plans at the last minute, and this special window opportunity allowed me to stay in Beijing for FOUR days until the late evening of the 22nd (early morning 23rd January actually). This gave me plenty of time to refresh myself about the sights and smells of China's capital city. I have been to Beijing in the winter before but only for a day or so- never had the luxury to stay for 4 days. On the day I had been due to go to Beijing, first I missed my flight from Shanghai (part of it was my fault for not checking out of The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai Pudong on time, and secondly I had to thank the ever great Shanghai morning rush hour traffic). I managed to take the Maglev train to the airport, and thankfully was put on the next available flight (there are 22 flights between Beijing and Shanghai everyday so no worries on that account!).
Now, if I thought that the traffic in Shanghai was bad enough, I had a very good surprise waiting for me in Beijing. It took me at least 2 and a half hours to get to the ultra luxurious Park Hyatt Beijing in Guomao area. This included an exciting taxi ride (almost as exciting as in Guangzhou ... but less than Bangkok), where thanks to my impatient taxi driver, I had to change taxies in the middle of my ride (the first taxi driver refused to drive into the heavy traffic).
Just like it's wretched road traffic conditions, Beijing weather can also present some ugly surprises of its own. The first two days it stayed as foggy as the shades of Aladdin’s lamp, and then the next two days it become thankfully more clearer, but more bitterly cold (but not as cold as places like Suzhou where the cold just gets into your bones- extreme).
I managed to make the most of the weather, going to places I had to before to refresh my memory (Shangdi, Wangfujing, Xidan, Guomao, and others), while also exploring areas that I had not been to before (Olympic Park- which is just dormant nowadays). The highlight of it was witnessing the non-stop fireworks display at midnight on the 22nd January from the waiting gates at Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital Airport. The whole airport, and its staff members came to a complete standstill for around 20 minutes (even the pilots and baggage handlers stopped) to witness the fireworks. The backdrop music of opera singing coming from the state owned CCTV1 echoed throughout the terminal.
Below are some of the photos of this beautiful city, enjoy:
The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing was my final Ritz-Carlton property to review (for the moment, until other Ritz-Carlton properties open in China), and I am glad I had waited to review it last (not that I wanted it to be the last one to review!). Why? Well, the interior architecture, and furnishings portray a nostalgic sense of what a true Ritz-Carlton property should be like. So, yes, good things do come to those who wait! Opened in December 2007, this luxury hotel is not quite as modern as The Ritz-Carlton Beijing, Financial Street. Nevertheless, with its 305 well-appointed guest rooms, including 38 suites and 61 Ritz-Carlton Level rooms, it does offer something for everyone from businesspersons right the way through to luxury travellers who prefer a touch of elegance on their travels. The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing is contemporary, yet designed with comfort and relaxation in mind.
The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing is situated in the capital city’s new business hub, known as China Central Place. Centrally situated in one of Beijing’s most fashionable areas and adjacent to Shin Kong Place shopping centre, The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing offers guests unparalleled convenience while providing a luxurious stay.
If you are looking for a bit of calm within the craziness of Beijing’s city life, then The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing could be the place to stay. No matter what the weather outside, rest assured that with the automated temperature controls available in all the rooms will keep you in comfort throughout the four seasons. All the rooms are attractively ornamented in warm, earthly tones that imparts a sense of cosiness and intimacy to guests. Just some of the luxuries of life include the signature Ritz-Carlton 600-thread linens and featherbeds, state-of-the-art in room facilities including iPod®, 42-inch flat screen LCD television and, internet access (wired and wireless). It’s true that from the moment that you step inside your room, you will feel the grandeur envelope you, and draw you into a world of sheer comfort, and perfect security. The hotel is a key preferred accommodation by many distinguished celebs, CEOs, and foreign Royalty. Some of the key reasons for this include the excellent security it provides, it’s close proximity to all the government and corporate offices in Beijing, and it’s only a 30-minute ride to the international airport.
Naturally, these aren’t the only attractions on offer. The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing also has a host of luxurious leisure facilities, such as The Ritz-Carlton Lounge, which is exclusively reserved for Executive Club guests who can indulge themselves in complete privacy. I’ll be the first one to say that nothing beats the feeling of sitting at The Club Lounge, and drinking a fine glass of Bombay Sapphire. It would be a blameless affair with the drink as the chefs at The Club Lounge serve the tempting ‘too good to say no’, all-day light buffets. Oh maybe a dip in the beautiful pool is on the cards for you? Located on the top floor is the indoor heated pool and Jacuzzi with an illuminated roof, where guests can soak or swim at their leisure. You may even find that a nice sauna session after working out at the gymnasium is equally refreshing.
Located at the same level is The Ritz-Carlton Spa, spread over a spacious area of 2,500 square meters. The Spa is divided into Ladies and Gentlemen resting areas. It features nice treatment rooms that including six single lavish treatment rooms with an Aqua Bed, two Couple’s Suites, and a Manicure & Pedicure Salon. If you have just arrived from faraway lands, and are jet-lagged (and tired), then I would highly recommended you commence with a 30-minute Tension relief back massage (costs 380RMB at the time of writing), and then follow it up with a 60-minute Aromatherapy Facial (costs 1000RMB at the time of writing). This combination of a gentle and calming massage on the body and face using a variety of luxury products is to make you feel fresh, restore your inner self, and to neutralize your skin, and restore its natural appearance. It was so good I fell into a deep sleep (I had to be physically woken up!).
Breakfast can be enjoyed in the comfort of your room, or at Aroma at lobby level, the all day dining restaurant that offers international gourmet experiences featuring mouth-watering Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Southern Asian and Western dishes from an open kitchen setting. Now, if that’s not enough to fill your appetite, then for lunch or dinner there are two more dining options available on the 2nd floor, Yu (Authentic Cantonese), and Barolo (Classic authentic Italian). Fancy a Cigar? Then head off to the lavish Davidoff Lounge. The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing is one of the few Ritz-Carlton properties that specialises in providing authentically imported Cigars of high quality (The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou is another one). The Lounge is a luxurious haven to bask in the unmatchable pleasure of exclusive cigars, choice wines, and live entertainment.
In fact, apart from the above, the key things that really make The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing a firm favourite among Chinese guests is that it’s one of the only hotels in the city that offers excellent one stop shop for weddings (including a wedding chapel). The hotel features more than 1,100 square meters of meeting and conference space, including a Grand Ballroom, six function rooms, three meeting rooms, one boardroom, and the only wedding chapel within the hotel in Beijing. Therefore the wedding experience at the hotel is all-encompassing; the Chapel features a preparation room, separate resting rooms for the bride and groom, an outdoor Rose garden where wedding cocktails can be held. In 21st Century China, Chinese people are spending BIG MONEY on their weddings (much more than they would on their honeymoons!); and so there is no better way to say ‘I do!’ than to walk down the aisle in style in front of your friends and family (or the who’s who of Beijing), at The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing. Evidence of this struck me straight in the face- while I was residing at the hotel I witnessed two simultaneous weddings. So, yes, this is the place to be at if you want to get married in Beijing.
The hotel features more than 1,100 square meters of meeting and conference space, including a Grand Ballroom, six function rooms, three meeting rooms, one boardroom, and the only wedding chapel within the hotel in Beijing. The wedding experience at the hotel is all encompassing; the Chapel features a preparation room, separate resting rooms for the bride and groom, an outdoor Rose garden where wedding cocktails can be held. An opulent and personalized wedding can be staged in the Grand Ballroom. The hotel offers a one-stop-shop service by collaborating with some of Beijing’s premier wedding service providers including beauty stylists, wedding gown couturiers, photographers, floral designers, and jewellers.
The impeccable service of The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing, is further executed by the multi-lingual concierge team, and personalised service that is unmatchable anywhere else. So in many ways, a stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing is perfect for you whether you are sight-seeing, have a night in town (oh we love Beijing Duck!), or simply just get away from the stress of life and soak in the surroundings of the beauty of your room. Whatever tickles your fancy, the property is definitely designed to last through rapidly changing times and trends that will encompass Beijing for years to come. So, how can you resist falling into the lap of luxury?
Dining at the Yu Restaurant at second floor of The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing is an experience to cherish for again, and again. The Chinese people pride themselves in on being one of the earliest people to develop sophisticated notions of polite social culinary interaction. This includes the highly sophisticated rules of etiquette governing acceptable table manners and tastes. Yu Restaurant, which can hold up to 110 dinars, presents exactly that and nothing more than sheer sophistication. The restaurant offers a traditional tea-themed Cantonese cuisine. As I sat in one of the seven luxurious private chambers to dine like a Qing Dynasty emperor, I was mesmerising on the thoughts of what surprises I may be in for. A large water feature welcomes guests to the restaurant.
What’s more is that a tea master await all comers to intimate and sumptuous gastronomic affairs. Yu in Chinese stands for ‘Jade’, and there is plenty of it decorating the walls and the interior of this luxurious eatery. The interior of Yu is bathed in a bright red and mahogany wood colour, blended in neatly with golden beige accent pieces. These somewhat create a sooth feeling of elegance, sheer prefecture, and absolute comfort. Each of the seven private chambers is named after a type of jade stone, for example our room was called ‘Blue Jade’. Attention is paid to even minute details, from the tea corner to the silk wrapped menus. The menu includes at least a dozen tea samples encased within the menu.
As I was presented with the menu, I just looked at the Chef de Cuisine, Ku Chi Fai, and asked him to ‘Surprise me’ with his culinary magic. Then there was the house tea sommelier who was available to assist in guiding our choice of tea to go with each dish.
It’s best to commence with the sweet yet tangy flavoured ‘Double whelk matsutake soup’ (松茸炖响螺) which is a lovely medium-to-deep yellow in colour, and shows the red and black cherry aromas as the soup touches the back of your tongue and neck with each sip.
Yu offers an extensive menu of refined Cantonese dishes made with fresh ingredients and precise execution. The ‘Appetizer selection’ (前菜拼盘) contains the popular honey roasted suckling pig—a classic Guangdong dish—has skin cooked to a perfect, crisp orange and a smooth and juicy centre. Also, watch out for those baby cucumbers- they are immensely tiny and cute!
If you have a special place in your heart for seafood, like I do, then go for the main gem of a dish: ‘Braised cod fish ball with spices in casserole close-up’ (大千焗银鳕鱼). It looks like a piece of art work rather than a dish. Dare to tuck into the noodle nest which achieves high level of sophistication, as the whole dish is edible. You cannot argue with exceedingly good boneless pieces of succulent codfish lying side-by-side with the baby shallots. Yummy!
Continuing with the seafood theme (they love seafood in Canton!), the next dish that sandwiches the meal is ‘Grilled prawn with preserved vegetables dry eggplant’ (宫廷梅干虾球). Bright, elegant, and delicate looking (and tasting) prawns add enough sweetness and sourness to this wonderful gastronomic jewel. Autumn breeze marks the perfect season for slightly nutty yet buttery dishes such as the grilled prawns.
No Cantonese meal is complete with the ‘Taro puff and egg tart’ (芋蓉酥拼蛋挞), this ‘out of this world’ dish is a delight to have with any Cantonese dish. Its not really the presentation of the dish that matter’s but rather the taste. Cantonese people (especially those from Hong Kong), would not hesitate in pointing out the quality of a perfectly made egg tart. Soem will even argue to the point that their egg tart is the best in the city. The bright lemon colour of the yolk inside the tart, and the slight softness of the tart indicates to outstanding quality of the product. The easier it is to drop out of your hands, the worse the quality (i.e. the stronger the egg tart, the better it is). Challenge any Cantonese person and they will have no hesitation is proving you wrong. The nose of the dish displays a certain aroma of vanilla (it may be true), and lemon. Enjoy it while you can and make sure that you don’t leave any bits and bobs lurking around.
For the finale, ‘Chilled sago mango cream, and fresh fruits’ (杨枝甘露拼水果) is the treat of the day. But forget the fruits, its the chilled sago mango cream that can eat your heart away. Slightly dry, sweet to the front of the mouth, but all in all a complete journey of sheer perfection and a beautiful long length of butter, sago and mango kissing your throat with each spoonful. It’s great, and it’s all truly Cantonese at the Yu restaurant. It’s one of such prestige appellation to round off a perfect meal at one of the most sought after eateries in Beijing.
I still fondly recall my stay at the Peninsula Hotel Shanghai earlier this year in March. It gave me the impression that the hotel was a neat blend between the contemporary design and retained 1930s feel of Shanghai’s hey days’ (when it used to be known as the “Pearl of the east”). In contrast to the Peninsula Shanghai, the 525 room Peninsula Beijing has a completely different feel to it altogether. Apart from all the usual signature Peninsula amenities and in-room facilities offered in every Peninsula Hotel around the world, the Beijing Peninsula differs enormously in terms of architecture, ambiance, its classical interior décor and the amount of shopping one can do inside the hotel. It is the only other Peninsula hotel on mainland China (and part of the “Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels’ Ltd), and is rather more well established as well than its younger and newer counterpart in Shanghai. This magnificent picturesque hotel has been through 4 renovations since its opening in 1989- and 2003 was the most recent one where over US$34 million were spent to upgrade its facilities.
Originally known as the “Peninsula Palace Hotel” until 2003, The Peninsula Beijing has become a renowned landmark since its opening in March 1989. Located in the heart of Beijing’s glamorous Wangfujing area, around 5 minutes walking distance from the bustling Wangfujing Street itself, and around 15 minutes walk from the Wangfujing Metro station, the hotel reflects a careful blend between the innovative touch and the luxury that it stands for. In actual fact, most guests will tell you that with the change of the times, the Peninsula Beijing is fast becoming a hotel that requires itself to constantly provide some sort of innovation its guests. It’s the small things that make the big difference to a guests stay in the 21st Century (and beyond). Such as the luxury of having to use a Fax Machine and the international direct dial (although the Beijing Peninsula does not feature of free International calls by Skype like the Shanghai Peninsula). The whole Peninsula experience starts with a personal pick up from the airport (VIP Pick up also available on request) with one of the Hotel’s signature Rolls-Royces’ or the BMW 7 series automobiles- and the same service is available on checking-out. The driver will take you straight to the plane (for those flying with First Class/Business Class), or to the terminal building.
The rooms are slightly smaller in size compared to the other Peninsula Hotels’, but it must be bore in mind that this glorious hotel has been operating since 1989- and in those days it was perhaps the most luxurious hotel operated by a foreign company in the whole of China. This was well before any of the Peninsula’s competitors’ entered the Mainland China market. To this day the tradition still looms in the air. The customer service, the maids dressed in period uniform, the Rolls Royce Service and the general feeling of the hotel that gives a message of “Yes, I am at the luxurious Peninsula” is still the same as it was in 1989. Toiletries, as with all other Peninsula Hotels in China, are provided by “Davi”- including their impossibly luxurious hand cream.
One of the key things that impressed me was the polished level of languages spoken by the native Chinese staff except English. These included French, Spanish and even business conversational Italian. Now that is a bit of a rarity in China- you’d be lucky enough if someone speaks good enough English let alone any other language.
The Peninsula Beijing Club looks and feels like a gentleman’s club. There is a strict dress code of semi-formal to formal wear with no jeans, shorts or trainers. The view may not be that fantastic, however the service and the environment is calm and soothing. Unlike the kind of “Clubs” that some of the other five star hotels’ offer, the club house at the Peninsula is a real club house. By this I mean that it is just the right place where one can relax and while away their evening in the company of good friends/colleagues and a good wine in hand. Normally such clubs are the nearest thing comparable to Gentleman’s Clubs such as the “Victory Services Club” (London) or the “American Club” (Hong Kong) that are frequented by Airline Captains’, Four star Generals’, Actors’ and other VIPs’. Its how a club should be- not with numerous amounts of food (it’s not a restaurant) or with the rest of the hustle and bustle that one gets in a noisy eatery. On my trip I even managed to bump into renowned Chinese actor, Mr. Guo De Geng.
The Club can be used by anyone, however is only complimentary for those staying at any one of the Club rooms on three dedicated floors of the hotel (and the 57 Suites’). The focus is mainly for those who are business minded- and the general conception is that everything should be smooth. This is true from everything ranging from private checking-in and checking-out to the breakfast service (guests can have a pre-assigned Breakfast at short notice if they are in a rush). The only thing is that some elements of the service may seem very traditional for those that are used to residing at more modern five star hotels’- such as the amount of dishes on offer are quite limited. One thing that people must remember is that the Peninsula is all about luxury and class rather than the amount of service. It’s the quality, and not about the quantity as they say.
One of the finest innovations of the Peninsula Beijing is the “Academy” that allows guests to enjoy any one of the 10 signature experiences’. There is something for everyone- including Children. Some of the amazing experiences include “Chinese Contemporary Art”, “Kite making with a Kite Master*” and “Chinese Dumpling Making**”. The latter two have to be my favorites. The “Kite making experience” allows people to visit a real Kite Maker in their Hutong courtyard house, and then after the kite is made you take it down to Tiananmen Square to enjoy this traditional activity. The “Chinese Dumpling Making” allows the guest to be given a personal tutorial on the history of the Chinese Dumpling by the Peninsula Chef, and then allows the guests to learn how to make a perfect Dumpling. Highly recommend that you make a reservation two days in advance to avoid disappointment.
Whether you want to relax, swim, exercise, shop (over 50 shops in the renowned exclusive Peninsula Arcade) or eat like there is tomorrow at the finest of Beijing’s restaurants’ then the Peninsula has it all. In terms of having a massage or a swim, the Peninsula for sure has a deeply personalized spa experience like no where else in the rest of this part of the capital. Opened in 2008, the 1370 Sq m Peninsula Spa by ESPA forms part of the third-floor health and fitness facility at the Peninsula Beijing with 12 state of the art treatment rooms that include all the relevant treatments to cleanse the skin, relax and soothe aching muscles and preparing the body to become more fresh and energetic. The experience of the Spa doesn’t just stop here as there are a wide variety of treatments for men and women available on request. Both men and women have separate thermal suites that include a steam bath, sauna, lifestyle massage shower and an ice fountain.
Don’t be disappointed if you feel that the Peninsula Beijing does not seem to be as contemporary as, say some of the other five star hotels’, or if the rooms are a bit smaller (except of course in the HUGE Suites)- because it really isn’t meant to be either. The clientele at the Peninsula are different, perhaps more affluent and perhaps not so much of the business type. The vast majority are celebrities, people on holiday or those who just prefer to enjoy life in Beijing at the high end.
One of the key features and memorable experiences I would definitely recommend is the impossibly scrumptious food served at the Huang Ting. Whatever you do, and whatever you eat, just make sure you don’t go away without trying the signature Beijing Daiquiri. An amazing combination of Banana, Vodka, lemon Juice, Triple sec, curacao and a quick dash of Mao-tai; the Beijing Daiquiri will not only blow your mind away, but will perfectly round up your stay to be a memorable one at the Beijing Peninsula.
* 2 Hours cost RMB 1250 per person (Prefer Minimum 2 persons)
** 90 Minutes costs RMB 880 per Person
Now, when you are in Beijing there are three places one should not even think about leaving without seeing or trying. The first two are the Beijing Great Wall and Tiananmen Square. The third one has to be a famous eatery where you can try some delicious authentic Peking Duck. In a similar fashion a trip to the luxurious Peninsula Hotel in Beijing is not complete without going to the 140-seat Huang Ting Restaurant (it really isn’t) - but that’s if you can find where it is. Rather unusually it’s tucked away in the basement floor of the Peninsula Hotel among some of the finest boutique shops in Beijing selling luxurious branded clothes. Not really the kind of environment one would expect a luxurious restaurant to be in. However, the good thing about this is that it does provide the Guests with a bit more privacy and space to relax and enjoy their meal. The Huang Ting was opened in 2003, rather novel compared to the Peninsula Beijing itself which was opened in 1989. Guests are welcomed to the Huang Ting, which is arguably Beijing’s best Cantonese eatery, with the sight of a huge bamboo bird cage, and a set of Tigers’. It’s perfectly located just around a 15 minute walk from Tiananmen Square, especially for those who are not residing at the hotel and just want to experience the food.
Prior to entering an eatery, every guest has their own stereotypical thoughts and expectations of what they want to hopefully see and eat- and perhaps how to spend their time. The impossibly beautiful “Huang Ting” is no different. After all it’s a five star restaurant situated in a traditional five star hotel right in the heart of the Capital of China- and one would expect a high level of five star service. But what’s different about the Huang Ting? I suppose the remarkable irony of the Huang Ting is that its contemporary design and décor devised by Chhada Siembieda and Associates of Hong Kong is based entirely on the settings of a traditional noble courtyard house - which is fast being a dying breed these days. Soft and slow music of the 8- stringed Zheng can be heard in the background- almost the feeling as if you are in a traditional tea house.
Don’t be shocked to see a hint of the past here- grey brick walls taken from the original Hutongs’, slated and aged Pine floors. Another most unusual feature of the restaurant is the splendid pinewood furniture that derives from a large 200-year old mansion in the famous canal town of Suzhou (near Shanghai). There are small bird cages hanging from random places of the ceiling. Fine Mahogany dominates the four VIP Dining rooms (one of which I had the gratification of occupying during my experience). Waitresses dressed in attractive Red Rose colored Qi-piaos’ are on standby to assist you. Customer service is immaculate- the staff are also able to converse in acceptable levels of English.
The Huang Ting has Feng Shui elements embedded into its design, with a water feature and waterfall panels inside, and a special “jumping fountain” visible outside the restaurant.
I commenced my eight-course gastronomical experience by being introduced to the fabulous drinks list that contained a nice blend of wines (Chinese and Western), cocktails and an assortment of other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. I opted to go for pure authenticity in terms of the design and name of the drink- the Huang Ting Cocktail. Deep shades of Orange and Yellow blended in nicely with the Pineapple, Lemon and Chinese Red Wine. There was also the Beijing Daiquiri- an amazing combination of Banana, Vodka, lemon Juice, Triple sec, curacao and a quick dash of Mao-tai.
The starter could not be much more vibrant than having three different types of flavors’ in one dish. The “Combination of BBQ ell, jellyfish and Spring Roll” (鳗鱼拼海蜇春卷) dish is the perfect way to start the adventure at Huang Ting. The slippery Jellyfish, the slightly chewy BBQ Ell and the ridiculously crispy Spring Roll with its fine Vegetables went well with the Huang Ting Cocktail Drink.
With this meal I decided to opt for the “2 Up Shiraz” (South Australia) Red Wine. Not too sweet and not too bland either. In actual fact it went perfectly with the crispy Beijing Duck.
I am actually intimidated by the more adventurous of dishes that are sometimes presented in restaurants across China. Mind you, it was my first time to tuck into the next dish that the chef de cuisine came up with- “Hot and Sour Shark’s Fin Soup with Scallops” (鱼翅带子酸辣汤). I love seafood (I really do), but believe it or not I had never tried Shark’s Fin Soup before. Just the thought of seeing a Shark was lurking at the back of my mind while I was sipping the spoonful of this impossibly mouth-watering consommé. I would eat this again, and again because the beauty of this dish was that the Scallops were carefully designed to look like sea shells. The attention to detail and presentation was amazing.
Another work of genius by the chef-de-cuisine came upon with the “Wok fried river Prawns with celery and X.O. Sauce” (X.O酱西芹大虾球). It’s not often that you get X.O. Sauce flavored into a Chinese meal (we hear a lot about Soy Sauce though).
The most memorable experience of this restaurant has to be the live cooking of the exquisite Peking Duck right in front of you. You are in Beijing, in one of the best restaurants around and it would be a great pity not to try this signature dish. The guests have the pleasure of choosing a roasted Duck prior to it being carefully prepared and served in front of your eyes. Note the white gloves worn by the chef- a sign of how clean and fresh the food should be when served. For one person, 4 “Duck rolls” are prepared – these consist of a rolled Mandarin Pancake that contains generous amounts of the crispy Duck meat blending in well with the spring Onions pressed onto the rather thick Hoisin sauce.
Continuing on with the eating experience, I was wondering if I had the stomach to take all of this food. The good thing is that the portions are just fine- not too much and not too less either. Next came the brightly colored “Pan-fried cod fish” (干煎银鳕鱼). This dish projected the true Cantonese flavor that the Huang Ting is renowned for. There was a generous helping of Soy Sauce and a dash of a red pepper going across the Cod Fillet. Just sensational. With a dish like this, it would be wrong not to spend around a few moments just taking in a deep breath with each bite and absorbing the flavors’.
Having just had eaten a fully crispy Peking duck, I was wondering if there was any need for any more duck, but let be surprised I was treated to a generous portion of “Diced Beijing duck and asparagus in black pepper sauce” (黑椒露笋炒鸭粒). Not too bad but perhaps a bit more Black pepper than one would like to have- though it is known that in Cantonese food the more black pepper the better it is for the body (keeps the doctor away and so on).
Fresh fruit, fish and vegetables are the core elements that make up any culinary experience come alive- even more so for Cantonese food because most of the Cantonese food also contains other snippets of meat. The pure vegetarian “Braised bok-choy (Chinese cabbage) with black mushrooms” (三菇扒小棠菜) was a sheer delight to have, and I was relieved to have it. Not that I am a vegetarian, but for those who are Vegetarian this dish would do you wonders because it is not easy to find such high quality vegetarian dishes in China. The “Bok-Choy” was not too large and just right for the mouth. I say this because in most restaurants the “Bok-Choy” is just too large and difficult for foreigners to bite at- and it looks ridiculously comical (and messy) when a foreigner tries to eat Chinese food.
Cantonese food relies heavily on seafood and fried rice noodles (unlike the noodles that are offered in the north of the country), and so to continue this authentic trend, a fabulous presentation of “Xia-Men fried rice noodle with shrimps” (鲜虾厦门炒米粉) was offered. Not as oily as some of the dishes that are offered in some restaurants across the Guangdong region, and especially with the rich flavor of the large Shrimps, this dish was to die for.
As with all Chinese meals, the curtain on this experience was drawn with a healthy helping of “Seasonal Fresh Fruits” (合时水果拼盘) - a colorful combination of Dragon Fruit, Pineapple, Watermelon and Kiwi Fruit. The portions were just enough not to make you refuse even if you were full. The overall experience at the Huang Ting portrays excellence in terms of culinary delight, customer service and pure authenticity. Just don’t forget to order that splendid Huang Ting Cocktail- it was so good that I ended up sipping two glasses.
The set meal costs 480RMB (Including Tax). Drinks are charged separately.
For any newcomer that arrives in any of the big cities in 21st century China, by now it should not be a surprise that these big cities are developing so rapidly that it’s hard to believe what their skyline looked like only a few years ago. The Capital city, Beijing, is no stranger to this remarkable change. Prior to Beijing hosting the Olympics in August 2008, pockets of the city had emerged to host internationally award winning hotels’ and restaurants’. Beijing’s Shangdi district (located in the north-western part of the city), and the Financial Street area located in the south western side of the capital (near Fuxingmen Station) are prime examples of this rapid growth. The latter is even more important because this area of around 2 square kilometres, the Financial Street district has effectively become Beijing’s new CBD with companies such as the likes of Morgan Stanley, China Ping Insurance and many others setting up base there.
However, the beauty of the Financial Street area is that it’s not really popular with business people (well, it is to some extent during the weekdays when the offices are open), but rather it provides an attraction to the local and overseas’ affluent clientele, as well as visitors that prefer luxury and style. The 253-room Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Financial Street also falls under this umbrella. Opened only in October 2006 and located around 22 miles from the main Capital airport, the Ritz-Carlton Financial Street is ideal for business and leisure travellers (not to forget the VVIPs and Celebs’). Mind you, it’s location in the rapidly developing financial area actually does justify its name for all those who care. Bearing in mind that the “Ritz-Carlton Financial Street” is the full name of the hotel and it should not be confused with the “Ritz-Carlton Beijing” hotel which is located near Wangfujing- on the opposite side of the city (Beijing has two Ritz-Carltons’- so mention Financial Street to the taxi drivers’ and avoid getting lost).
Located right next to this fine-looking hotel is a large shopping mall which has retail outlets from every luxury brand listed under the sun. From the outside the 19-storey Ritz-Carlton Financial Street hotel does not offer much in terms of architectural genius. But, hey, as they say, it’s the quality of the product that matters- and it must be pointed out that the hotel’s neat blend of contemporary design and the Chinese Feng Shui influences (Note the cute glass statues in the corridors!) wonderfully outnumber the exterior design. It’s also the fancy little things such as the stationary designed to look like Chinese cutlery (pencils that look like chopsticks!). You know, I felt like as if I had fallen in love with the Bvlgari bath amenities and not just the food in the club lounge. The hotel derives its energy from traditional Chinese elements in the Capital- such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Therefore the hotel’s interior design has been heavily energise and invigorate its guests. With this in mind, its safe to conclude that the Ritz-Carlton Financial Street has become an embodiment of Feng Shui.
The first thing that strikes any new visitor to the Ritz-Carlton Financial Street is the personal touch to the customer service offered by this splendid hotel. For those travelling to the airport (Nanyuan or the Capital Airport), the Ritz-Carlton Financial Street provides an airport pick up for guests’ that require it. The hotel attendant will meet you at the gate of the plane and escort you to the waiting chauffeur driven car, and whisk you straight to your room- no need to check in. This splendid service is offered to guests residing in the Executive Club Room and in the suites. It was a good thing that I took the chauffeur driven service because I had forgotten to bring my overcoat to a miserably cold Beijing from a rather warm Guangzhou. The charming reception I received upon exiting the car and entering the hotel warm enough to fade away the chilly weather outside. You really do feel that you are being looked after- and that’s what makes the Ritz-Carlton a great hotel brand.
A lovely touch to the stay for any guest is a signature Chocolate turndown amenity- comprising of a traditional Chinese coin and a gold ingot given for the evening before retiring- meant to bring continued prosperity and happiness (though that can comprise of dreams too).
Guests also have the comfort of using the complimentary shuttle service within the Financial Street area (a radius of 2 km) which may be considered a necessity because of the slight isolated location of the hotel in relation to the metro station, and the other buildings within the immediate vicinity of the premises. One thing people have to realise is that everything is big in China, and this includes the buildings and the roads- so walking from the hotel to the Metro station for example can take around 20 minutes. For near enough attractions such as Tiananmen Square or Xidan, I would allow around half an hour if you walk briskly. Though on a cold winter’s day in Beijing, it’s wise to take a taxi.
One of the key features of the Ritz-Carlton Financial Street has to be food offered to the guests- not just in the three top quality restaurants but in the Club lounge as well. Credit has to go to the veteran award winning Executive Chef, Monsieur Cyril Arrouard, who is responsible for the fabulous Greenfish, the all-day dining restaurant, Cepe, the Award winning 70-seat Italian Restaurant (can you resist a choice of over 2000 Italian Wines?) and the adorable Chinese restaurant, Qi offering a deep fusion of Sichuan, Beijing and Cantonese cuisine. Hats off to this master of the kitchen for presenting a unique style and blend of gastronomical fanfare all of these eateries, but more so at the Club where one can find 5 different types of eating experiences provided daily. What they say is true that breakfast is the best meal of the day and at the Ritz-Carlton Financial Street you can eat breakfast like there is no tomorrow (don’t leave without eating the Omelette and Fried Eggs made by Chef Polo Liang!). So, it’s not really a club as such but rather another blend of a restaurant and a club. My definition of a club is one where one can relax and take a wine in the evening with some nuts- and some good company.
When you arrive back into your hotel room on a cold Beijing winter’s day nothing beats the feeling of treating yourself to a swim in the heated indoor swimming pool (while watching a silent black and white movie being played in the large screen!), or take a dip in the lovely Jacuzzi, steam or even the sauna room to thaw down those cool heals. The Gym and the pool facilities are all complimentary for all guests residing at the hotel- it’s another lovely gesture by the Ritz-Carlton to say thank you to the guests. An aromatic experience awaits those who wish to have a relaxing massage treatment by one of the experienced staff.
One thing that is easily noticeable is that the rooms are spacious- quite possibly the most spacious around for the money’s worth with a certain air of elegance and a cosy atmosphere (especially in the cold Beijing Winter). There is something for everyone, from leisure and business travellers to even families. Business travellers have the ease of using internet in their room, easy access to 24 hour in-room dining and loads of TV channels to kill your time should you wish to do so. The only downside I found is the rather gloomy Beijing weather that can somewhat ruins an otherwise wonderful view (if it is clear that is). The Ritz-Carlton Financial Street is no stranger to reviews- having been voted best Hotel by Conde Nast Traveller in 2009 (Gold Listed). But don’t get me wrong, whatever your plans are, and then the Ritz-Carlton Financial Street is the perfect place to relax and while away your time during your stay in the capital city of China. You can’t ask for anything more (really).
Executive Club Room from 5000RMB (Approx. 750USD|)
Deluxe Room from 4500RMB (Approx 670USD)
For around 30 minutes in the late afternoon of the 16th of November 2009, airspace around China's capital city, Beijing, was closed off to general civilian traffic. Beijing Capital Airport itself came to a standstill for around 20 of those minutes- there were no take-offs or landings EXCEPT for the EIGHT- I say again- EIGHT aircraft belonging to the entourage of the President of the United States of America who landed one after another on Runway 36R. President Obama's plane, Air Force One (a special Boeing 747-200) was the 3rd aircraft to land on Runway 36R. The aircraft vacated left on taxiway 'Whiskey 5', and then 'Mike 6', before turning around on taxiway 'Zulu 3' towards the VIP parking bays (stands 710 to 714). The VIP terminal and parking area for aircraft is quite a distance away from the main passenger terminals, and even media are not allowed to go without extra special permission. I took these photos from around 2 miles away (from Terminal 3!), and it'll probably be the closest I'll ever get to Air Force One. While the aircraft are on the ground, they are manned by hundreds of staff from the Chinese and American national security guard 24 HOURS a day. The President's Air Force One parked neatly in between the two Air Force Two aircraft.
President Obama had come over from Shanghai, where yesterday (Monday the 16th), he greeted a group of about 500 Chinese students at the Museum of Science and Technology. His trip to Beijing was to boost further the relationship with China, and to have dinner with President Hu Jintao. Both of the Presidents met in private off Tiananmen Square here on a freezing Tuesday morning to discuss issues like trade, climate change and further boosting positive relationships, in a session that signalled the central role of China on the world stage. Beijing was in a lockdown for most of the day. President Barack Obama also toured the Forbidden City in Beijing.
During my travels in China, the one thing I really enjoyed turning a necessity of life into a hobby was the food. It goes without saying that Breakfast is one of the best meals of the day (the other is, of course, Dinner). I must admit that when I first arrived in China in 2003, I dreaded the thought of even slurping on a bowl of rice noodles mixed with bits of “meat” (usually Pork chops; but in China some people cannot translate the meat type into English, so they just say “meat”), first thing in the morning. Instead I wanted my Corn Flakes with delicious cold milk, strawberry muffins and a nice cup of Tetley tea! Yes, I was spoilt on eating a standard western breakfast all my life! Plus, as a travel writer I should have jumped at the opportunity to become a bit more adventurous and expand my gastronomical interests!
I still remember the huge disappointment of being forced to eat Chinese breakfast by my friend. “I can get some cake and Nestle Milk from Seven 11!” I said. “No” was the immediate answer from my Guangzhou friend;” You must try Chinese breakfast, I am sure you will like it” So, the first time my friend gave me a Chinese breakfast, my immediate reaction was “What is this?! Hot and spicy soup for breakfast?!”; I asked in hesitation.
That comment alone seemed to bring out the giggles on my Guangzhou friends’ faces. But as the days and weeks passed, I had actually gotten used to eating a traditional Chinese breakfast…no complaints whatsoever! It got to me so much that I actually used to look forward to waking up the next day and eating a delicious Chinese breakfast. It was my meal of the day. Why? Because every bite, every slurp is healthy, delicious, and just a sheer delight! I loved it, and still do. I even persuaded my parents to try Soybean milk, so much so that every time I came back to the U.K. I used to bring along bags of powdered Soya Milk.
In China, breakfast means so much more than just your average cup of tea. It's all about socialising- meeting people while soaking up the sun and catching up with the local gossip. Although western cereal companies haven't drummed it up yet in China, breakfast in China is still very much Chinese, and has proven time and time again to be the most important meal of the day. On every Chinese street, side alleyway, school canteen and office canteen; you are bound to come across five breakfast dishes renowned throughout the country for their taste, smell and unique attractiveness to foodies everywhere. Although Chinese breakfasts differ greatly between regions, however these five dishes are essential to any breakfast meal irrespective of your location in China.
The dishes are: Large white bun (Man-Tou: 饅頭), Deep-fried fluffy dough sticks (You-Tiao: 油條), Glutinous rice balls- sweet or spicy (Tang-Yuan: 湯圓), Large sesame bread (Da-Bing: 芝麻大餅); and Fresh Soybean Milk (Dou-Jiang: 豆漿). The Five dishes, sometimes referred to as just four when not taking the Man-Tou into consideration, are almost like a fashion icon of breakfast meal. Basically, it may be said that no Chinese breakfast is complete without these. Although sadly with the emergence of MacDonald’s and KFC in most Chinese cities many young kids are opting out of eating healthy Chinese breakfasts - even to the extent that these “Little Emperors’/Empresses’” will argue with their parents/grandparents to eat the last remaining Hamburger, or drink a Strawberry Milkshake first thing before school begins (I have seen this with my own eyes many times, and its not nice).
Making of a perfect Chinese Breakfast
Now, I am more than sure that the Taiwanese-born Chinese chef, Ching-He Huang, would have a much better way to describe this, but this is my version, and the way I was taught to eat Chinese breakfast! One dish which I have left out of the list is the Congee (稀饭), which is similar to the western Rice porridge. Interestingly enough, the word Congee actually derives from South India from the Tamil word “Kanji”. The beauty of a bowl of Congee is that you can mix it with whatever you like depending on your taste buds and preference. You can make it sweet or spicy. Everyone has their different way of eating a bowl of Congee.
Let’s begin with the large sesame bread, (Da-Bing: 芝麻大餅), which comes in three types: Tasteless (boring and simple), Sweet (preferred by many) and salty (usually sprinkled with spices and sesame). The art of cooking this bread is to simply mix the fermented dough with some butter (Margarine or, Sesame Oil and Sunflower Oil will also do) and when you are happy with the shape of the bread, stick it onto the oven (usually a clay fireplace is used by professional chefs), and bake it into savoury bread.
The Man-Tou (饅頭) can be classed as being one of the Da-Bing, however usually it can just be bought on its own. One portion normally consists of three small or large white buns- resembling a large marshmallow. The Man-Tou is boring, tasteless and quite hard to eat- imagine biting into a hardened cake and you’ll get the idea! Usually people eat a Man-Tou with a flavoured dish (salty or spicy).
The Tang-Yuan (湯圓) consists of sweet or salt flavoured steamed coarse glutinous rice turned into balls the size of Beetroot. They contain a stuffing of deep-fried downy dough sticks; spicy pickles, dried meat for salted ones; and sesame seeds or white sugar for the sweet ones. The sweeter ones are also dipped into syrup- alas this can be too sugary for some people!
The Dou-Jiang (豆漿) is best drank fresh- when I mean fresh I mean that the Soya beans that are used to make the drink have been crushed that very day and mixed with hot water and sugar (if preferred) using a blender. For some people in China it is routine to get up early in the morning and make fresh Dou-Jiang to take to work or to give to their children to take to school/college. The Dou-Jiang you get in the shops and the supermarket (even with powdered Soybean) is not quite as healthy and delicious as the fresh one. The fresh Dou-Jiang is viscous and has a strong aroma of soybeans (just like fresh coffee!). Some shops such as the Circle K-Shop make it fresh as you wait.
I have tried making fresh You-Tiao (油條) a couple of times (I managed somehow). Now some people may have different ways to cook this, but I was taught to neatly blend the fermented dough with some vegetable oil, twist it into long stripes so that it looks like a foot long screw (that’s the best way to describe the spiral shaped bread!), fry it until it turns golden, soft and crispy. Most people eat their breakfast on- the- go (i.e. in the bus, train or car on the way to work). Its inexpensive (you can get fresh hot Dou-Jiang and You-Tiao for around 5RMB in most shops), healthy and delicious!
Oh and, of course, I am talking about eating Chinese Breakfast in China...because Chinese food only tastes good IN China, not in USA, UK etc.
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