A week in Beijing, Hilton Wangfujing

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  1. SST
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    The recent SEA-PEK flight sales caused M and me to head to Beijing at $596 apiece rt all-in, upgradaded on AA to business class with some expiring Systemwide upgrades, which was a true relief because AA fly to PEK only from O'Hare, and the actual ticket was SEA-ORD-PEK-ORD-SFO-SEA (with the last leg on Alaska). We booked a cheap SFO-SEA positioning flight for the morning in question, and off we went.

    West coast positioning and the flight to Chicago went without a hitch, except that I forgot my AA Admiral's Club card so without it we were unable to use the Alaska lounge in Seattle. At O'Hare, as Executive Platinum we were able to enter the Flagship Lounge and have their excellent jumbo prawns as lunch, along with some excellent single-malt scotch. It is an uninteresting room for sure, but the food and actual quiet more than makes up for it. I read the Trib, WSJ, Investor's Business Daily, and the FT, having killed the SF Chronicle and NYTimes on the way cross country. Curiously, the FL never has an French papers, and I don't read Spanish or I'd have read the three papers they had en Espanol, too. Being a news junkie is a nice complimentary obsession for a travel junkie.

    The flight from Chicago is 12 hours, just a tad more than from SFO, due to flying up toward the North Pole, and our plane really went far north of the North Slope, coming down thru Siberia and over Mongolia to Beijing. We slept fine on AA's 777 especially since Business wasn't full and we had double pillows and their poor version of a duvet both under and over. There was moderate turbulence over Siberia, and I got up with about 3.5 hours to go, and watched Argo, which turned out to be a decent film.

    Debarking in Beijing, we got through immigration and customs in short order, and into the "50 minute" taxi line. It took perhaps 20 minutes to get to the front, although several older women tried at various points to jump the queue and/or push past us, as if entitled. M had a huge grin as she stood just so to pin them behind us the last 10 minutes. Karma is not good on this, but I, too recoiled at their brashness and their embarrassed husbands following along behind them, asking permission to join their wives.

    The queue-thing clearly isn't quite as engrained as it should be. We found this true elsewhere, too. Hong Kong and Shanghai both have more politeness in this regard.

    So off to the Hilton Wangfujing, about half an hour's drive at 11 at night. Driver knew Wangfujing area, but appreciated the business card I had printed out in Chicago, which gave directions in Mandarin to the hotel. He spoke no English; we did fine anyway. Enjoyed the ride, and when we got to the Hilton, we were surprised that Beijing is clearly not a "late" town. About midnight, there was no one about, no one in the bar or lobby, and we rolled our carryons right up to the room on our own. Not a particularly impressive start for such a highly rated hotel.

    But it was nice. They upgraded us as HHonors Diamonds to a suite with a gorgeous bathroom and an impressive salon/office, plus a walk-thru closet from foyer to the bathroom area. Hilton had their usual wonderful bedding, and that was it: Sleep came quickly.

    The Executive Lounge on 16 was wonderful, with helpful staff and a decent view, good cocktail hours and the full breakfast setup. We nevertheless ate each day down on 5 in the restaurant (also complimentary) which had a noodle bar as well as an amazing spread of western, japanese, chinese, etc. for breakfast. It also featured friendly and efficient staff-- we enjoyed talking with them and learned many were on internships for hospitality school.

    The Hilton WFJ is great for the first time visitor. We walked to Tianenmen Sq and went thru the line to see Mao at his tomb. You can't take any cameras or bags thru, and a "helpful" gentleman ran us off to the check window just south of the exit, then arranged for us to JUMP THE QUEUE (I didn't know what he wanted the 20 RMB for (a small payment), but we were ushered into the line halfway thru, as his "connections" permitted. Into and out of the mausoleum, regards to the Great Helmsman's waxy preserved earthly visage, and we were out and retrieving the bags again.

    Next, since it was March the crowd to enter the Forbidden City palace grounds across the street from Tianenmen Sq. was sparse by Beijing standards, and in we went. You are accosted by "guides" repeatedly, but we refused it all and got our own tickets (short line) and "guided" ourselves. An amazingly large "city", it was gorgeous and historical and I was glad M made me watch "The Last Emporor" before we left home. This film provided a great historical context of life in the Forbidden City and the Emporer's role in the Republican era, after the dynasties but before Mao's revolution took over. And the end of it all.

    Note: If you want narration as you go through, there are more than enough English tours you can listen to at each successive palace pavillion so that you can get a tour without being on one.
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    We were well into the day now and headed for Hu Hai lake park northwest of the North Gate of the City for pleasant walking, and lunch. At a pleasant restaurant on the north side, we shared a great lunch, then walked thru the Hutong just east of the bridge and the East gate. Took us a while to find a taxi that would use the meter for a couple of Americans at this location--- an irritating pet peeve of mine (it's illegal not to use the meter, and they know it), but eventually we made it back to Wangfujing St and did a little window shopping prior to tea, then cocktails in the Hilton ExecLounge.

    Since lunch was only a couple hours prior and we were tired, the evening ended with some wine and hors d'oeuvres at the lounge, followed by a bath for two in the room's giant tub, and a run through of the hotel's large international channel selection (slight demerit for poor reception of BBC and CNN, but most channels were HD and fine.)
     
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  2. SST
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    So day two we had arranged for a car to take us at 10 out to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, about two hours from Beijing. We had a guide (850 RMB for the day from an outside source that had been recommended), and we had a great time visiting a pottery/art factory, taking the ski lift up to the wall, hiking several miles of the Wall, then taking the "sled" back down to the parking and staging area.

    The Wall is amazing at this section. There are several walkable miles, with towers every 1 km or so, and a lot of it is steep and strenuous, but the views are amazing, and the few vendors that were up there on this clear-as-a-bell day were non-irritating and helpful, taking pictures of us and providing drinks at a reasonable price once we made clear we didn't need army hats, little brass plaques saying we had hiked the Wall, or suspect food. One particular vendor, from Mongolia, talked to us about her home country.

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    I should say that it is not always this beautiful up there. We somehow lucked out, and while there was a reasonably smoggy day on our first day in Beijing, it cleared and was beautiful for the next four. On the last day, it was without doubt the worst air quality I had ever seen: I was exceedingly glad as we headed for the airport that we had had such luck.

    And beautiful it was. The wall is an amazing site, and the chance to see it in person at last was in fact a goal and it did not disappoint. We came back toward the City for midday meal, and had some outstanding noodle soup at a food joint, near the "National Park", which is a tourist attraction highlighting all the various ethnic groups of China, with their architecture and national dress, shopping etc.

    It was both a great exercise day and very interesting to talk with the guide. The evening consisted of a walk to the nearby Oriental Plaza center, down Wangfujing, and shopping and dinner at the large Szechuan resto in the center. Enjoyable meal, heavy on the fried red peppers (surprise...) and two large beers barely quenched the fire. Wandered the neighborhood till later, and packed it in.
     
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  3. SST
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    SST Silver Member

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    Day three we headed for the Beijing Zoo, and enjoyed the Pandas and especially the Cheetah exhibit. Our cab driver was a good one and a safe driver, spoke some English and offered to take us out for the day on Saturday for 600 RMB, so we arranged to meet him the following day at 10 at the Hilton. The zoo took up a couple of hours, and from there we grabbed a taxi to head for the Drum Tower and the hutongs of that corner of town.

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    Again, the waiting cabs seemed to want to rip us off for non-meter fares, so we flagged one down and our first taxi driver understood enough about where we wanted to go to head us off in that direction. Most of the way there, 21 RMB into the drive, we had an accident with a speeding driver bouncing off our front right fender as he weaved through traffic. We paid him, took off and continued on foot the last mile, which was interesting through neighborhoods. We finally found the Drum Tower and the amazing neighborhood of boutiques and vendors nearby, and spent until late that night wandering among the narrow streets, eating food and having a splendid Thai/Chinese dinner at a trendy young people's hangout. M bought some earrings and baubles, I bought some CDs, and we had a great time with locals and backpackers and mostly Beijing youth in a very interesting and pleasant district. A taxi back to the hotel late, without further incident.
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    The Hutong Neighborhood, before dark..
     
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  4. SST
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    Day four we met our driver in the lobby and headed to the major market and swap meet that features antiques. It was a major deal: 3,000 separate vendors, with everything from blankets set out with an unending variety of stuff to regular vendor stalls to small shops. The driver left us with a warning that much of the merch was fake, and this was certainly true from things I could identify. Nevertheless it was enjoyable as a diversion, and some of the artwork was pretty.

    Miscommunication with the driver led him to show up one hour late to pick us up, which was a face-losing opportunity on everyone's part, but we got through it with us being "happy" and him agreeing to extend our time by an hour. We headed out next to the 798 Arts District in northeast Beijing, which was very cool. It is former factories given over to artist studios, galleries, shops, boutiques and museums, plus some restaurants and bars. It could easily be half a day to see a bunch of it. We spent a few hours there and enjoyed it immensely. We headed to a shopping market that we had been referred to as having reasonable massages without a constant upsell (the upsell while you're being worked on is a classic operating procedure in China, in my experience) and we enjoyed an hour of foot massage for cheaps without having to decline constant offers of pedicures, manicures, etc.

    We finally took a tour of the embassies and the expat area around them that features upscale malls and restaurants, and after we said goodbye to the driver (not making him actually stay for the whole hour), we had a dynamite dinner at an upscale fresh food restaurant after a few minutes' wait for a table. The resto was good, but the expat area in itself with clubs and pubs didn't really seem of much interest, especially as compared to the hutong neighborhoods we had visited the previous evening. Also, the embassies themselves are not very interesting architecture, having apparently all been built in the early postwar period, and each surrounded with a green compound fence and Chinese guards. We had plans to go to the view bar at the Park Hyatt, which is in the area, but ran out of strength and decided to again have a cocktail at the Hilton lounge, and call it an evening. Didn't stay past 9, so none of the clubs had gotten going, and the crowd didn't seem particularly lively around the shops. Better was the area around Wangfujing and the night food market, the one with the starfish and snakes and scorpions, etc. We took a walk and somehow managed to avoid any of the creepy-crawlies. Finito. The Hilton's Sauvignon Blanc was just about right before returning. The lounge was undergoing a refurb, and we were invited into the nice room off the lobby with a fireplace, and we had the place to ourselves, with a server to bring us stuff.

    Sleep was peaceful, and since we had no schedule for the next day, we slept in and had a two hour breakfast afterwards.
     
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  5. SST
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    The fifth day, we set out by foot from Wangfujing and wanted to see the Peninsula Hotel. We like the Pen in NYC, Bangkok and Hong Kong, so this one was a bit disappointing from the lobby perspective. Not over the top, just a very nice hotel. Perhaps staying there and getting to know the finer points would make it better; I personally liked the Hilton WFJ just fine, but it is clearly a lot newer and very contemporary in its design.

    Headed to the subway, we travelled south to the Hongqiao Pearl Market, which is amazing on the upper floors. While the lower floors are pretty junky, the upper floors 4 and 5 have high quality stuff at reasonable prices. Some of it came home with us. So did most of my money, surprisingly.

    The Temple of Heaven park and its temple are essentially across the street from the market, and the trip afforded some nice views. We headed next to the so-called "Culture Street" and got off the subway a stop early, so we had a long walk through residential and hutong streets to the neighborhood, which specializes in paint and calligraphy brushes, an interest of my wife, M. It was amazing. Well, maintained, the longest street of art supplies and galleries I have ever seen, I'd wager. Likewise, M had a referral to a home near the center of the district where off the street in an alley a gentleman and his family serve tea and light lunch to visitors in their compound home. It was a joy to meet the family, their delightful animals (dog and mynahs, plus another bird) and we had the best wonton soup with bok choy either of us had ever had. It was fresh and delightful, and the 600 ml beer offered to wash it down was greatly appreciated. They spoke little English, we have maybe 40 words of Mandarin, and everyone had a good time. We were the only guests. On the way out, I noticed there was a sign, so it's really not a hidden treat; it just turns out that we were there about 2, and nobody else was.
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    A taxi from the Culture Street to the embassy area of Temple of the Sun park. Walking around, we found the upscale fashion market across from the Vietnamese embassy, then went down to the Silk Market for the hell of it. It still features a lot of knock offs, despite government attempts to stifle the most obvious. We saw some OK stuff, but no real good fakes, perhaps because we aren't really in the market for same, so we didn't get taken to the good stuff. M said she was delighted with the pearls (real), and didn't want to get led to some secret room full of leather bags. I got a couple of CDs, just extra copies of stuff I've bought at home, for my office. Fair use, I say, rather than just ripping a copy. 20 RMB a disc (US$3.25), and I didn't bargain or I'm sure I could have done better.

    Purses and wallets and all kinds of pictures of stuff was offered as we left, and we waved them all away, preferring to get a meter cab back to Wangfujing for Peking Duck on our last night. We chose Quanjude, near us, since a friend had told us it was great and needed no reservation. We got a great half duck at 130RMB and plenty of sides and enjoyed our local specialty to the max. The duck is really good, and the skin is superb. I hadn't had the skin with sugar, which was a bit of a treat, beforehand, and we both appreciated the ritual of the duck carving, which was done tableside. In all, a good way to finish our quick journey.

    We covered a bunch of ground, saw a number of great Chinese sites, ate well, stayed at a very pleasant hotel, and didn't break the bank. The trip home through Chicago also went without incident, and other than the pea-soup thick smog of the final morning, which was genuinely disturbing and was promised to get worse all day, we had a great time and suspect you should too. Be sure to go before the Hutongs are all bulldozed, and master the subway as it is a cheap and tolerable (2RMB) way to get around, rather than hiring a driver in town. If we go back, we will try a new section of the Wall, some more monuments in town, and quite likely will stay at the Hilton again. High marks.
     
  6. sobore
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    Sounds like an awesome trip, minus the traffic snafu! Great Report!
     
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  7. NYCUA1K

    NYCUA1K Gold Member

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    Agreed. The sort of blow by blow accounts that we probably should have more of!

    That is highly consistent with my own briefer account, with pictures that the OP would appreciate, of Wangfujing and the area.
     
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  8. uggboy
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    Thanks for sharing your adventure with us on MP! :)
     
  9. SST
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    Just finished a mileage run BACK to Beijing in order to requalify for AA Executive Platinum next year. This time, the route was SFO-LAX-ORD-PEK-ORD-DFW-SAN-LAX-SFO, from Friday thru Tuesday. Stay was two nights at the Great Wall Sheraton, upgraded to a junior suite, and the report is below:

    Did an overnight at the Sheraton O'Hare Suites to get some sleep, and also pig out on Gino's East deep dish pizza prior to the TPAC flight (pepperoni, green olives and mushrooms, with football on the tube in the bar), and although the Sheraton is nothing to write home about (needed to call for a bus pickup late, staff didn't know the club room hours for breakfast, promised to phone me and didn't, TV in living room inoperable, etc.) the rooms are fine and it was quiet so I slept late and made Gino's more "meaningful".
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    Not a scrap of the small pizza remained, and a couple of Elliot Ness beers to the good, I headed next door to the Marriott for a shuttle ride to the Terminal. (Note: the Sheraton is an $8 taxi ride away. A better alternative is the Westin or the miserable Marriott, which is eternally under Construction, and compares favorably only to a 1960s Holiday Inn, for Gino's, if you don't lIke taxis).

    Flagship Lounge at ORD stocked with good shrimp cocktail, passable white wine selection (red was dreadful), and off to Beijing via 777, which was only half full! D-E-G seats in my business class row were mine, a-C also vacant, and I had my pre-ordered blue cheese encrusted NY Strip, which actually came out rare when I asked for it! (Note: at 40,000 feet and on a plane, rare=undercooked, which was fine with me since I ate that portion I wanted and Gino's supplied more than enough calories and ballast. A couple of anti-inflammatories for the old age aches and pains, a Tylenol, and yours truly drifted off for six hours after a glass or two of the sauvignon Blanc. Six more hours to go, I read all but one magazine I had, emptying my travel case, and managed to enjoy three hours of music via MP3, completely ignoring the AV system on board. Read the WSJ, Barron's, NYTimes, SF Chronicle, the Trib, and composed a love letter to Mrs SST since she chose not to join me for the ordeal.

    Two other Biz Class passengers were down the way, either NonRevs or Mileage runners, since they had the same vibe with the FA as me, and I later confirmed my suspicions. The FA staff was excellent, pleasant, professional, and caring. I got off feeling good about AA and this trip, until I hit the taxi line. Marked as a scam victim perhaps as a light luggage American, the attendant directed me to a taxi area with one too few taxis, and then the "young, well meaning helper" appeared to lead me to an unmarked, no doubt overpriced car because "these drivers speak no English". Well, nuts. The Great Wall Sheraton is the biggest and oldest foreign hotel in Beijing, and every taxi driver knows it. He was insistent and I finally told him I did not like this scam, when he faded into the background to be called for the next sucker.... My taxi driver did not speak English, but took me directly to the hotel in 20 minutes, faster than I've ever experienced going anywhere in Beijing. 85 RMB not including the 10 RMB toll, and I let him keep the 100. (60 RMB = $10 US)

    Check in was pleasant, but on a Sunday night in Beijing the signature Chinese resto on the 21st floor was closed, as were the French bistro and apparently the entertainment bar. This left a buffet, and I passed since Gino's was still with me. The GWS is on the Third Ring Road, in the international embassy area of the city, and not a lot except the Agricultural Exhibition is nearby, certainly not nearly as good a neighborhood as the Hilton Wangfujing. Walked over t o the Landmark Hotel, which is adjacent and slightly newer, but the bar was expat city and I didn't really want a drink anyway. Decided against the short walk (15 min) to the Westin and set out for a long bath, and sleep. Good choice, except I awoke at 4am ready to tackle the city. Decided to take a run/walk to get the body back in fighting form.

    Took another soak, and canned the exercise plans when I discovered online that the haze had 252 ppm of contaminants (google it!) and decided to preserve my health by a couple reps at the hotel gym circuit of machines. I ate breakfast when the nice lounge opened, and the headed out for the subway and a walk. There are convenient subway stops on Line 10 both 5 minutes' walk south of the hotel and 5 minutes' walk north. I went two stops south and then explored the early morning scene at a wonderful park, filled with nice pathways and lots of people doing tai chih and ballroom dancing, who would have graciously welcomed me into their practice, had I been so inclined. Our narrator kept walking.
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    Went to Sanlitun center, still unopened, and had a coffee at Starbucks. Starbucks in china only gives you Internet access if you sign up and get a code by text, and having miserable AT&T on my iPhone, I avoided the inevitable ripoff charges. This center is full of Prada, etc., but I merely walked and window shopped, finally going to the nearby Yashow Market to re-experience the 45 RMB foot massages, which were welcomed and fine. Nothing special lik last time, just creditable for a guy whose been out walking for three hours.

    Trip through a couple pharmacies, looking for drug bargains (nothing in particular found, Kaiser Northern California is cheap enough not to risk it), and a pitstop back at the hotel to drop off some souvenirs and my sport coat, it being 75 degrees and about 150% humidity..... then out for some more walking. Embassy district, the Westin (same 1980's chrome and brass as the Sheraton, bit a little nicer, less touristy), off to Da Dong Peking Duck restaurant for tasty dinner.

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    Full, I returned home and got a Kim Crawford NZ Sauvignon Blanc in the bar (about $15, when I can buy a whole bottle at home for less), and headed up to the lounge to use email again. (Note: the hotel has poor email coverage in the guest rooms. I got it on Sunday, it was dead on Monday).

    Breakfast both days at the lounge was unremarkable except that they had a good Camembert cheese, rare in China. Checked out, and back to the airport by taxi, since it was raining like a monsoon (had hoped to try the subway to the train, next time...), andback to Chicago in 12 hours. Saw the two guys I had come from Chicago on Saturday with; told them I was on a mileage run too--- they fit the bill for FlyerTalkers/MilePointers---- 35-ish, well travelled, obviously smarter than hell...... (!)

    So my old 50-ish body makes it again. Some pics to be uploaded on the next flight, I hope. Best to all who read this, and Keep On Travelling! See you onboard...
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2013
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  10. satman40

    satman40 Gold Member

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    Enjoyed the report, next time get up early and see the raising of the flag,

    It is a trip I never get tired of, my wife is Chinese, so we make the trip a couple if times a year.

    Thank you at 72 it is not a bad trip, and AA FC FA treats us well.
     

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