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.

My Photo
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, March 03, 2011

Beijing Blahs

There are moments in every adventure that are dull and boring, and driving back to Beijing again from the Great Wall at Mutianyu was one such time. Our kids nodded off in the back seat, and I could hardly keep my eyes open.

Closing in on the city and pointing in the general direction of the old emperors' Summer Palace, traffic thickened as always in the capital, slowing our progress. Nearing the city center, our driver, Joe, pressed us to visit the Bird's Nest stadium, the principal site of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"It's on the way!" he exclaimed urgently. "We're almost there! We could stop!"

Why, we asked, would we want to see another boring stadium? Wasn't the world just chock-a-block full of big, boring stadia, each one more bloated and outrageous than its predecessors?

Joe was crestfallen that we didn't want to kneel before the most holy symbol of China's success in the modern world, so we agreed to compromise and drive past the edifice.

Frankly, I found the odd-shaped buildings nearby more interesting, but maybe that's my hard-wired bias against sports pleasure domes.

With Joe's national pride expiated, we drove on to the Summer Palace where I took this photo of Joe and his Chevy. Amazing to look at it and see that the picture might have been taken anywhere in the world:

It had warmed considerably, thanks to the sun, a rare treat on a Beijing winter day, and we enjoyed a relaxing stroll through the extensive lakeside Summer Palace grounds.
For those who have never been, it's worth it, but don't expect anything as dramatic as the grandness of Forbidden City. The Summer Palace is a place to enjoy natural beauty and achieve tranquility, possible even amongst the throngs walking the grounds. Visitors are usually respectful and relatively quiet, quite unlike, say, an experience visiting Sea World at San Diego.

I enjoyed watching the many Beijing cityfolk taking in the afternoon and old men deftly creating beautiful but ephemeral traditional Chinese characters in water on the walkways using huge handheld brushes:

In a more frivolous vein, I was delighted to purchase (for $5 each) several watches from the inevitable hawkers that featured a Chinese red background with the face of Mao Zedong and a waving hand:

Those of us who grew up watching the old communist-to-the-bone Mao's horrendous Cultural Revolution decimate the quality of life on an entire generation of Chinese appreciate the bittersweet irony of oh-so-modern China now using his once-revered image in an overtly mocking, commercial way. Mao must be turning in his grave. I bought four of the watches to take home as gifts; predictably they began to fall apart before we returned to the hotel.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we left the natural beauty of the Summer Palace for the office of a Chinese foot massage doctor. Joe had enthusiastically endorsed the experience of foot massage as relaxing and healing, and he cited several of our friends who had enjoyed this particular place. Ignorant and curious (a dangerous combination anywhere), we caved into his entreaties, but not before stopping at a McDonald's for our son to take in some calories.

Thank goodness that McDonald's has stores throughout China. Otherwise our son, 12 and a picky eater, would have withered away. Most Mickey Ds there are built into the urban fabric of the city, that is, they are not stand-along stores as we are used to here in the States. The stores then become less obvious; they blend in as just another restaurant rather than standing out. This is a practice I'd like to see with all fast food restaurants in the USA. The menu is nearly identical to here, as evidenced by our son's super-sensitive taste buds that reject the slightest differential to the bland tastes of McDonald's American fare. In China, he ate every bite.

On to the foot massage therapy we went. Parking the kids in front of a TV, the adults were taken into a room with lounge beds and huge buckets of steaming hot water laced with foul-smelling herbs. We stripped our shoes and socks off and were forced to endure the painful heat of the water to cleanse and prepare our lower extremities for the ordeal to come.

Foolishly, I realized later, I was looking forward to the appearance of the massage doctors so that I could stop pretending to enjoy the boiling water bath. The strong-armed massage experts did troop in soon enough and removed our feet from the buckets and dried them thoroughly.

Thence began a grueling series of deep massages to my feet and legs which unexpectedly brought back bad memories from high school wrestling days. Those of us who participated in that ancient sport can never forget what it was like to have one's flesh burn as it rubs hard against the mat while being overpowered by a strong opponent. That's the best analogy I can offer for the experience of a Chinese foot massage.
Suffice it to say I wouldn't recommend it to my worst enemy. For the privilege of suffering this pain we paid about $16 each, not including tips.

My wife on the companion bed didn't seem to be emitting the grunts and groans I found spontaneously emanating from my body, so I opted to continue with the torture and make the best of it. Later she admitted she didn't enjoy it, either. Had I known that in the moment, I'd have terminated the session and simply paid them off. I can still feel the pain of the small bones in my feet crunching in the massively-muscled hands of the so-called doctor. Only a masochist would willingly return.

Afternoon light was waning fast as we departed the foot massage office, and Joe suggested an early evening experience unique to Beijing: the kungfu show at the Red Theatre. Still not quite rational from the foot massage, we agreed too readily, and Joe made calls to get us tickets.

Truth be told, we were not anxious to return to the depressing confines of our tiny rooms at the Days Inn Forbidden City. We wanted to take in as much of the city as we could, knowing that we'd have only a half day more tomorrow before leaving for the airport to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam. So we headed in the car to the Red Theatre.

Late afternoon drive-time gridlock in Beijing is notorious, and we hit the traffic at the height of rush hour. It was agony for the kids and the adults to be stuck in traffic that inched along and was frequently at a dead stop. Joe managed to get us off the second ring road and onto city streets, which were also horribly congested. But we kept moving, albeit slowly, and a trip that might have taken 15 minutes at 1:00 PM took well over an hour.

The Red Theatre's architecture has nothing special to recommend itself aside from the lighting that makes it red, yet it is well-known. The night we attended the kungfu show many Chinese and foreign officials and dignitaries were among us, and their limousines littered the parking lot.

As with many public spaces in China, the theatre was not heated. Despite the crowd of bodies filling most every seat, it was cold, and we kept on our heavy coats, scarves, hats, and gloves throughout the performance.

The show was interesting and quite well done, but by then I was so tired from the long day (and still mildly jet-lagged) that I drifted off to sleep several times during the performance. I missed one entire scene. Turned out our kids also slept through most of it, as did my wife.

Aside from delaying our arrival back at the dismal hotel, it was a waste of time and a lot of money (tickets for so-so seats were an astronomical $30 each). We don't recommend it unless you are very interested in kungfu theatre or have no other options.

Traffic was not bad at 9:00 PM when we started for the hotel, and it took no time to arrive. We were asleep within a half hour. As I drifted off, I contemplated what we would do the following day, including visiting nearby Forbidden City and finding a better hotel for our return visit to Beijing.

Next time: a walk through the hutongs, seeing Forbidden City, locating a fantastic hotel, and the long ordeal of flying to Hanoi.


Blogger hulananni said...

I know Wonderful Willie would have bought at least 5 of the watches. He experienced a similar 'massage' in I semd him in first to 'check it out.' Great story.

3/03/2011 7:55 PM  
Anonymous ZippyPam said...

Those guides must all have the same cars, same itinerary, same connections... On our trip back from Mutianyu, we parked along a busy street to view the Bird's Nest and I, too, have the same photo of the high rise. It intrigued me as well though the guide had no inkling of its function. As for the foot massage - we were treated to a free one at a massage school. However, the topper was the diagnosis of our ills by their "doctor." He took our pulse and looked at our tongues. End of exam. Diagnosis was accompanied by prescriptions for $150 USD in herbal meds. We took a pass. Oh dear. Lesson learned. Be assertive with your guides or you waste your valuable time.

3/04/2011 12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why the days inn? Unbelievable. The Beijing hotels are mostly gorgeous unless old and run by army! We stayed in an army owned hotel and since it had no tile or anything but a bed and straw pillow, we asked how old it was. Well, it was brand new! Maybe it was your hotel, but this was 1992!

3/04/2011 5:49 PM  
Anonymous J said...

I hope your son grows out of his current eating habits. There's so much good food to experience in life!

3/06/2011 9:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home