Jun 042011
 

Since the business meetings I was traveling for were mainly held at the hotel we were staying in – The Regent Beijing – I spent quite a bit of time here.  Fortunately, it was a really nice hotel – one of the nicest I’ve probably ever stayed at, despite the relatively reasonable rate which worked out to around $180/night or so including taxes and fees. The hotel was conveniently located downtown, about a 15-20 minute walk east of the Forbidden City.

A few random notes about the hotel and area:

  1. For just a little more than the price of taking a taxi from Toronto Pearson airport back to my home in North York (500 RMB), the hotel arranges limo pickup service for guests. Not only did a young lady stand at the exit from the airport for over an hour holding up a sign with my name on it (my flight was a little late), she said this really wasn’t too bad compared to how long it sometimes takes. I have to say, the good thing about smartphones and the like is that hopefully it will give people stuck with these kinds of jobs the ability to keep their minds occupied instead of just standing there – though prices still need to fall a lot to reach this demographic. Separately, the driver waited with the car – a very nice Audi A6 (or perhaps it was an A8, I don’t really remember) – for that entire duration. It does highlight what for me felt like a pitfall of capitalism; the amount of human capital expended (two people for several hours) for a marginal increase in my convenience doesn’t seem particularly worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy that the fee I paid can support their income and likely their families (a topic I discussed with colleagues later in the trip), but with an education it’s possible that either could be smarter and more accomplished than I am.
  2. While I didn’t check out the supposedly amazing health spa, the room itself was top notch, and unlike most hotels that try and ding you $5 if you dare to drink the water they put in the room, that wasn’t the approach here – free water, free apples, and even free shoe shining. You just leave your shoes in a bag, let reception know, and within hours (even on a Sunday evening), someone came to your room, picked up your shoes, shined them nicely, and returned them. The included breakfast buffet was also amazing and would have easily cost $25-30 in a North American or European hotel (making the $180 inclusive price that much better).
  3. The level of service provided around our meeting facilities was similarly excellent. Not only were there ample power bars, but the electrical outlets (including in the room) were all universal outlets that required no adapters regardless of what country we were coming from. Staff monitored the room at all times, set up various snacks/beverages outside the room in a non-intrusive way (and we likely missed some, because every time we’d take a break, something different was there – most of which we did not completely eat), and they aligned all servicing of the room with our natural breaks – so things were always in great shape but it didn’t disrupt even a minute of our meeting. Such was the attention to detail that you pretty much couldn’t open the door back to the meeting room after taking a break – someone was always a step ahead of you with their hand on the door to open it for you.
  4. Despite the very high level of service, in stark contrast to somewhere like India there was no expectation of tipping – much less a system designed around extracting tips. Indeed, the experience seemed design to even remove any ambiguity about whether a tip would be appropriate (e.g. they pick up and return the shoes while you’re out, and they know you are out due to some kind of sensor in the room – rather than presenting them to you in person so you can wonder whether to tip or not).
  5. I was quite surprised, given that prostitution is illegal in China and that I’ve always though of breaking the law as being a particular bad idea in a country like China, with the propensity with which I was approach in the immediate neighborhood of the hotel. I suppose that my obviously non-Chinese appearance greatly facilitates their targeting, and to be fair, some of the people approaching me seemed like more mild attempts to separate me from cash – like having a drink together that I’m sure would result in the bartender presenting a bill for hundreds of dollars (I’ve heard this is a common practice/scam in Hong Kong). Others were more definitively working girls, even though from their outward appearance you couldn’t tell them apart from anyone else on the street. This was a little disconcerting, but I eventually found that if you don’t acknowledge their presence in any way, they ignore you back very quickly.
  6. Nothing quite accentuated the juxtaposition between rich and poor like the car dealership and the vehicles that pass by it:

That dealership is literally in the hotel. Why buy an expensive watch or a diamond ring as a gift for the family – when you could bring home a Rolls Royce! By contrast, directly in front of the dealership, these sort of vehicles pass by:

There was a whole class of vehicles like the above – essentially, motorbike conversions in which a light frame is constructed and sits on top of a small scooter or motorbike as the underlying platform. It’s quite funny – sometimes you see what looks like a small car, only to realize it’s a shell around a scooter. I’m surprised this hasn’t caught on in other Asian countries like Taiwan and Malaysia that are heavy on scooter use!

Although I have no idea how my hotel compares to others in Beijing, as it’s the only one I’ve stayed, it was definitely an excellent experience; if you’re staying in Beijing and OK with a hotel in the $180 price range, I’d certainly recommend considering it!

 Posted by at 8:05 am
May 272011
 

Taking professional engagement/wedding shots seems to be a big thing in Asia; indeed, when Valerie and I got married, we were whisked off to a photo studio to take some wedding pictures (which I will not share here :)) only hours after we had landed in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. China seems to be no exception to this, as the street directly in front of the hotel we stayed at featured at least three studios right at that location. Every evening starting at around 7pm, you’d see couples just standing in the street, using the nice hotel across from us (featuring a more classical European design) as a backdrop for their photos.

Two couples (and probably many more), however, were braver, and took their photos during the day at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.  This is a public attraction, featuring many buildings from imperial times surrounded by a nice set of gardens. I walked there during the day, and it was sort of hard to miss a couple taking pictures behind the first of the main buildings. The photo crew was throwing the tails of the girls costume in the air, taking shots as it fell slowly to the ground. A small group of tourists had already gathered to capture this, so I didn’t feel too bad snapping a picture too:

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 Posted by at 6:01 am
May 162011
 

I’m currently in Beijing, China on a business trip; one of the nice things about my job is that it’s allowed me to see places that I’d likely never otherwise have had the chance to see. The travel has a downside, of course; usually I just go to the same places over and over again, and often those places have little of interest other than the office that I happen to be visiting. Also, while in the past if I was coming some place that was new, I’d seriously think about buying a 2nd ticket for my wife and extending the stay a little, that’s no longer really practical now that we have kids.  Still, Beijing is new and I’m thankful not just for that, but also that a last-minute agenda change provided enough free time to take a vacation days while I’m here.

I’m sure I may have more things to say later, but for now I wanted to pass on a tip for how to confuse an illiterate (and unprepared) pedestrian. As of late, when visiting a place, I tend to look up where I’m headed before leaving and a rough plan of how to get there, but then I just walk without really having directions, a map, or a GPS (unless it looked really confusing, or I’m on a tight timeline). I prefer this both because I tend not to walk the same route too many times, and because you also tend to walk unremarkable but very local streets, as opposed to simply popular/large ones.

Of course, if things go very wrong with this approach, there’s always a backup – ask someone, use the GPS on my phone, or even get in a taxi. Also, many major cities have maps all over the place, so you can get your bearings. But in Beijing, I saw a new trick with maps I hadn’t seen used before:

(sorry for the tall image, it was the only zoom level that showed the English names). After visiting several places of interest – Tianamen Square, the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City), Jingshan Park, and Beihai Park – I decided to head back to the hotel, having been on my feet for quite some time by that point. was directionally pretty straightforward, but I checked the map anyways, as I was walking along Dongsi West. Now, Dongsi West is itself interesting; it’s only about 500m in length despite being a “major” road; west of that, it’s called Wusi St., and east of that it’s called Chaoyangmen Inner St. One might thus understand why you might omit labeling the street on a map. Indeed, the map I was looking at had no “You Are Here” type dot, and just had a single road labelled “Dongsi” (without a direction), and which ran north/south as you see above.  I knew for certain I wasn’t walking north, so I re-calibrated to the belief that I was walking south. Which of course, I wasn’t, thanks to a junction in which three of the four roads can have the same name!

To cut a long story short, I wound up walking considerably longer than the shortest path back to the hotel, finally caving in and using the GPS in my phone to get my bearings. Still, it was certainly an interesting walk along the way, as I wound up in some really run down alleyways, with poverty on display that was an unbelievable contrast to the Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Aston Martin dealerships that are all a 3 minute walk from my hotel (which wasn’t that far away). Unlike the tourist areas where people pounce on you, trying to get you to ride in a rickshaw or spare some change, the people I saw in this neighborhood seemed genuinely surprised to see a foreigner. Frankly, other areas of Beijing felt more like any other big city; these alleyways felt more authentic, more distinctive, and more like China as I had imagined it.

So I’m glad I walked a different path, and learned about a little trick that I won’t be falling for again :).

 Posted by at 8:13 pm