Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hutong Hotel

Two Weeks in China and Vietnam, Part 2

We arrive in Beijing

Our flight to Beijing, China via Hainan Airlines from Seattle in Business Class (see previous post) went off without a hitch but for a delay. After the door was closed and we pushed back from the gate, the Captain announced that due to strong headwinds en route we would arrive PEK 45 minutes behind schedule.

Twelve hours later we did indeed land at Beijing exactly 45 minutes late.

On the way Hainan treated us well. The Flight Attendants were, well, attentive from start to finish, and always cordial. The on-board staff was especially solicitous of our two kids' well-being.

It appeared that at least one of the male staff on board was not an FA but for security. He loitered about the front cabins and galleys throughout the entire flight keeping an eagle eye on passenger comings and goings. Thankfully, his skills were not needed on our flight.

The meals were good but not great. I had eel (Unagi kabayaki) for my entree, the only memorably good dish. The usual multiple courses of small dishes served before the main dish varied between recognizable and mysterious, but we nibbled on the lot out of curiosity. None was worth describing in detail.

The wines were tasty (I tried several whites and reds) but not anything to rave about. After sampling the wines on offer, I went back to the delicious Mumm Cordon Rouge NV Brut Champagne. After all, Champagne is always appropriate when traveling, and I never tire of it!

Disclosure of hard-wired bias: Any airline that doesn't serve a French Champagne (and is there any other kind?) in its premium classes loses me as a customer forever.

The two menus (one for the meals and one labeled "Bar Service") were a bit tattered, either a cost-saving sign or one of neglect. (On the return flight PEK/SEA two weeks later, Hainan had no Business Class menus at all to offer, saying they had not been catered with any.)

I found it odd that there was no ice on board to cool the Diet Coke I requested mid-flight.

The Business Class lavatories were always clean, and were in fact VERY clean, throughout the flight. FAs were seen tidying up and refilling paper in the toilets behind every passenger. We were happily impressed.

The hours dragged on, as they always do on these interminable trans-Pacific flights, even in the comfort of a lie-flat seat in a luxurious and spacious cabin. I slept, as always, intermittently, even though the seat in the bed position was parallel to the floor and wide enough not to feel cramped in.

On arrival at the gate in Beijing at 5:15 PM local time (45 minutes to the second behind schedule), my wife and I agreed that we had made an excellent choice in Hainan Airlines. We would definitely use them again in Business Class.

Incredibly, we were out of security and looking for our driver by 5:45 PM. It helped that we had only carry-on luggage; we hoofed the long distance between gate and the Customs/ Immigration portal at a brisk pace and had only a short wait to get our passports stamped.

Once out, we were perplexed to find that our driver, Joe, who is reliable and well-known to us, was not there to meet us as expected. We paced up and down looking for Joe.

Late afternoons are dark and cold in Beijing in December, and terminals at Chinese airports are not heated to American standards. The kids were tired, and so were we; the exhaustion, darkness, and chill made us irritable. I was on the verge of booking a taxi when Joe suddenly turned up, bright and cheerful as usual.

For Y220 (about $28.50) Joe had agreed by email to transport us to the center of Beijing to our hotel, the Days Inn Forbidden City. We piled into his Chevy (Chinese-made Chevrolets and Buicks are extremely popular) in the freezing parking lot and were soon en route on the toll road to the city.

I managed to stay awake somehow through the entire 60-minute ride, but my family fell into a deep, if short, sleep, waking only as we exited the 1st Ring Road (innermost Ring Road) and drove down the main drag by the fancy hotels, such as the Peninsula, as we neared the hutongs (the ancient residential neighborhoods that used to make up central Beijing) surrounding the Forbidden City.

Don't ask me to name the street because it changes names at least once or twice, and I could never decipher the English translations of either from our maps. But I know the central part of the city well enough now that I could take you there on foot or by car.

The area was dressed up fancier and more Christmassy than Times Square after Thanksgiving. Christmas decorations and lights festooned every building, street corner, and alleyway. We gawked as we made our way down the boulevard.

It's no secret to anyone who's visited China in December that they are mad for Christmas. A resident German scientist we later met confidently explained to me that the penchant for blue Christmas lights in China is due to the Chinese association of the color blue with nature.

As if that explained why the Chinese, who have no Christian tradition, have adopted the American Christmas culture with a vengeance. It's a bit unnerving to enter an elevator in China and hear Bing Croby crooning "White Christmas" through the overhead speakers. It seems more alien than seeing whole snakes roasted on a spit in the Beijing Night Market.

Joe soon pulled into a narrow alley along the wall of hutongs close to the Forbidden City, and there before us in the cold darkness loomed a squat gray building with a familiar Days Inn sign affixed to it. I recognized the boring rectangular box of a building at once. It could have been any modest Interstate-exit hotel in America, but here it was wholly enclosed by the centuries-old hutongs adjacent to Forbidden City.

Next to the property's residence building was a smaller building with a front entrance and small lobby. I headed that way to check in, and completed the formalities in ten minutes (credit card, passport, etc.).

Keys in hand, we traipsed over to the gray building to find our two rooms. Two rooms because our research indicated that five people could not comfortably occupy one room at this hotel. Each room ran about $63/night, so I didn't mind paying for two.

Three, or even four, rooms would not have been sufficient, however, to overcome the disappointment. Both rooms were tiny and utterly devoid of charm. There was no closet, and no place to hang clothes. The bathroom was uncomfortably close to the one bed, lacking in privacy. That and the low ceiling intensified the claustrophobia I felt just upon entering my room.

I knew at once that we needed to find another hotel for our return to Beijing in two weeks, but I resigned myself to making do with the situation for a couple of nights. It was, at least, clean, and the heat worked fine.

I discovered the shower dispensed plenty of hot water with good water pressure, also a plus, but there was no shower soap provided.

Oh well, only two nights, I thought. But I wouldn't recommend the property to anyone I liked. The Days Inn Forbidden City's guest rooms were at the far end of the spectrum from those of the Hilton Beijing where we'd stayed in a grand suite on our last visit to the Chinese capital.

Dazed from the trip, my wife and I unpacked a few essentials. Knowing we needed to adjust quickly to our new time zone, we mustered the kids back out into the cold and dark and walked out of the hutong area to the main street, looking for a restaurant.

Family-owned restaurants abound in Beijing, something first-time visitors discover on their first day, and most are good. We stuck our heads into one or two along the street until we found one we intuitively liked and ordered several dishes off the laminated plastic menu.

Menus in such restaurants rarely have English language translations of the food items, but most have pictures of each dish next to their descriptions in Chinese. We sometimes don't know whether the meat we are ordering is pig, chicken, beef, goat, or dog, but it all seems to taste good when it arrives. The important thing to get right is not the source of protein; it's the sauce and the amount of red pepper cooked into the dish.

My tolerance for and love of very spicy food is legendary. My kids, though, won't eat hot foods. We lucked out that first night; when the food arrived, the kids liked some of it. My wife and I liked all of it and drank two beers as well. The bill for five of us came to less than ten dollars.

With dinner warming our bellies, we retraced our steps to the Days Inn and our unlovely rooms and all fell into a much-needed deep sleep.

Next post will continue the tale of two weeks in China and Vietnam, covering one of the best meals we had on the entire trip, a breakfast for six (including our driver, Joe) for under $3 (Y19); a day trip to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, where we enjoyed donkey meat for lunch; and the excutiating experience of a Chinese foot massage.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't wait for the foot massage saga. I had an excruciating massage at a hotel in Sapa...never to be forgotten!

1/28/2011 7:47 PM  
Blogger Barry said...


Thoroughly enjoying the posts. Thanks for sharing and I await your next missive.

2/04/2011 5:24 PM  
Blogger Barry said...


Really enjoying the posts. Thanks for sharing and looking forward to the next update!

= Barry

2/04/2011 5:26 PM  

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