Experiences in China: Travel in Beijing and Yunnan

Few cities elicit in me and others a love-hate relationship as Beijing does.  One thing I love about Beijing is the contrast between the old traditional Chinese and the ultra-modern: both coexist side by side. It is undoubtedly a very interesting city, but equally tough both to navigate and feel comfortable in. Most people I know don’t like it. The weather is extreme, and while I was there in the peak of summer, temperatures can go up as high as 40°C (104°F). If not as hot as that, then it is horribly polluted. So it’s no picnic.

Travel in Beijing and Yunnan

Because I have been to Beijing several times, and done all the usual sights (The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tiannamen Square, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven), and I have been fortunate enough to stay at an actual Hutong home at my friend´s house. This year, during my two weeks there, I decided to immerse myself in experiences that focus on aspects of Chinese culture and lifestyle. I love to eat Chinese food but don’t know how to cook it. I think it is a great idea to learn about a culture through its food, and I try to take cooking classes wherever I go (within reason). Learning to make dumplings sounded like a great opportunity, and I therefore enrolled in a day cooking class at Hutong Cuisine, where together with 10 other amateur cooks, we were taught the secrets of making boiled, steamed and pan fried dumplings. During 4 hard working hours, we learned to make the dough, chop the ingredients properly, dress them and then create the beautifully crafted dumplings. The whole process looks easy but it is a true challenge, at least for me.  I haven’t yet tested the recipe but will do so soon! Daunting thought.

Then I enrolled in the Chinese Culture Centre, a hub to familiarize foreigners, – both residents and visitors- to Chinese culture. There, I experienced and enjoyed a few hours of learning Chinese flower and landscape painting,  with ink on rice paper, which requires a lot of patience and calm… and it is a bit an exercise in meditation. The result even being a novice is surprisingly good! I then took a mini course on Chinese Traditional medicine, which was fabulous. The mini course carried out over 4 days in 2-hour sessions conducted by Shelley Ochs, who has a PhD in History of Chinese medicine and acupuncturist split, who was enlightening and fascinating. I learned about the basic principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, its history, traditions, etc, so much of which is key to understand Chinese life in general.  Some of these courses were tailor-made others where joining a group and all of them were equally satisfying. I would encourage anyone spending extended periods of time in China, to try to penetrate the often difficult surface and try to get to know Chinese culture.

The rest of my days were happily spent relaxing, shopping and eating at wonderful restaurants.Beijing has changed enormously in the last 15 years and even in the last 5 that I have been coming here. Most people would be surprised at the variety of high-quality, deluxe accommodation dining and  surprising shopping options in very luxurious malls. And of course, there are few things as relaxing as getting a foot massage, which I love and is fantastic in Beijing (and throughout China and Singapore).

I was guided by my local friends and was lucky to savour the  delicate and superb Peking roasted duck at Made in China Restaurant, the divine cuisine of the Temple Restaurant and the unbelievable dumplings at Tai Fung Wook.

During a couple of days, I decided to escape the city and head off to do some exercise and breathe some fresh air. I signed up with Beijing hikers first to a hike on a lesser known section of the wall, the Jinshianling section. This was a truly amazing experience. A full 10 km walk on the wall (!) with stunning views. Then on the way back to Beijing I enjoyed a delicious meal at a local restaurant on the way. The second hike I did, was to the Silver Pagodas. It was lovely traversing literally forests of chestnut trees famous in this part of China. One thing to keep in mind on hiking during this season, it can get really, really hot.

As a travelling insider, I had to test the services of what has become one of my favourite hotels anywhere, The Opposite House.  I had eaten there before, but this time I stayed and absolutely loved it. The décor and the attention to detail in every aspect of our experience really made a difference.  The Opposite House provides the perfect refuge of peace and tranquility in a hectic, noisy and polluted city. The service was silent, efficient but not in your face, and there were lot of things that in other hotels are always extra such as Wi-Fi and minibar that in this hotel are included in the price. It is interesting that in a country where English speaking hotel staff are not easy to find even in the best level hotels, they have managed to bridge the gap by having a very efficient, easy-to-use iPad system to order room service, wake  up calls and find out almost everything. It is quite humorous and actually reflects the language gap in China that we ordered a plate of  “steak fries” and got only the fries!!  It appears that is what they call their fries.

For those visitors wanting a taste of traditional China I would recommend staying at a Hutong boutique hotel, the DuGe, which is traditionally built and exquisitely decorated in Chinese style.

At the end of our stay in Beijng, my son and I headed out to Western China, exactly to Northern Yunnan Province. Only after booking this mini trip did I realise how far we were travelling!  To get there you need to fly to Kunming, the capital of the province and then to Lijiang in our case. Yunnan borders with Myannmar and Vietnam on the west and with Tibet on the north. This area is advertised by the Chinese Government as a wonderful way to see and experience the minority cultures of China (there are as many as 80 ethnic minority groups in Western China in Yunnan and other provinces). In Lijiang the focus is on the Naaxi and in Shangri la on Tibetan culture. We spent 4 lovely days between Lijiang and Shangri la, but were not enamoured.

In my view, the way they showcase Tibetan culture here is somewhat contrived, the destination is generally too busy with local tourists… the temple over restored, the “living cultures”  and the living cultures” not particularly alive, , and the overall Yunnan Experience overrated.  I must admit that I am particularly critical having experienced  the relative authenticity of Tibet as a bakcpacker  travelling overland from Khatmandu into Lhasa and  independently 25 years ago (!)  Even if we thought the whole experience was a bit artificial, we were happy to have gone. I feel one always learns when we travel, even if the destination does not enthrall us.

Where we stayed had a huge impact in our overall happy experience. Had it not  been for the wonderful Songtsam Lodge located right next to  Monastery outside the town of Shangri la we would not have loved our trip. But the lodge made the magic.  It is exactly what we love. It really gave a sense of place, it is owner – operated by a Tibetan hotelier, who clearly loves his culture and understands that the experience is not only the destination but the place where you stay. You can tell it is a labour of love, and istastefully decorated with Tibetan furnishings and antiques. Every room is different and gives a feeling of Tibetan culture. The staff speaks surprisingly good English, and the service is excellent. The dining room is inviting, and the Hotpot particularly delicious. The Songtsam Lodge at Shangri La is one of 5 lodges, the rest of which we did not visit but they look just as lovely.  We needed to keep busy especially with a nearly 12-year-old and after visiting the gaudily restored monastery and hanging around the hotel (I was happy but not my son), we were left wondering what we could do. The lodge staff (wonderful) organised a fantastic full day trek (about 4 hours walk) including a picnic (picnics are a hit with kids!) and we had a magnificent time.

The Banyan Resort in Lijiang, where we also stayed south of Shangri la and one of the most visited destinations in Yunnan was surprisingly a disappointment: staff spoke poor English, everything included in the room was extra and it was too artificial in my view. The type of luxury I don’t like. Branded luxury is not my thing.  The architecture and decor was certainly vernacular and tasteful, but it lacked “soul” and wasn´t inviting or cosy. The service was adequate despite the lacking English, but it wasn’t personal.  For example, we were not advised on arrival that if we wanted to attend the most important show that is held in Lijiang, (which everyone goes to), we needed to make a move immediately because it was out of town. They waited until we asked and by then it was too late.  The room was large and well decorated, but there were signs everywhere saying if you wanted that item you could purchase it.  They are also building new cottages and that ruined the view. Then the boutique was offering standard upscale items at very high prices. In hindsight I think personally having an effective guest relations person would have made the experience more satisfactory.

All in all, we had a marvelous time but are not longing to return!

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