Sunday, 31 July 2011

My experience in China and some learning points

Generally, I did not have problems where language was concerned. I have always prided myself on my excellent grades for Chinese. Although people on the forums have said that they had problems understanding or communicating with the Mainlanders even though they were highly proficient in Mandarin, I did not quite believe them totally. However, I trod with caution and tried not to overestimate my language proficiency either. I knew how difficult for comprehension the tongue-rolling Mandarin could be.

But I did okay there. Most of the time, if I got to talk to them face to face, I could understand what they were saying and I could communicate with them fluently.

The only time I had to ask for repeats was the time when I called up Da Dong Restaurant to book a table. The receptionist spoke fast, like all Mainlanders do, and I could only try to make good guesses from the words spoken and the context.

I try to jot down some learning points I have picked up from the trip:

1) When in Rome, do as Romans do.
Many Singaporeans complain about the rudeness of Mainland Chinese. We did feel that the people were uncouth as well, but we enjoyed our stay all the same. When Coco was visibly affected by their rudeness, I told her to do as Romans do - be like them once in a while ie. jump-queue if need be, 'tsk' others if they 'tsk' you back. At other times, be as civilised as you like yourself to be. Most importantly, bear in mind that they are not the most polite people in the world and you won't impose the same expectations as you have for Singaporeans on them. And you won't feel so miserable.

2) The Mainland Chinese give directions, they use North-South directive
When I asked a passer-by how to get to Middle Tibet Road, she pointed to the other side and said,"Cross the road and go towards North!"

When I asked the receptionist at the Beijing hotel about a shop, she said,"Cross the road and walk North."

I related the direction to my father and he asked me,"Which way is North?"

3) The eateries and restaurants usually do not serve rice if you do not place order for it.
It seemed to me they took it that you would just eat from the dishes without any staple food! To think I always thought rice is a staple originated from China. Apparently, it has never been true. If it ever has, it must have been lost somewhere along the line.

When you do place an order for it, they would ask 'white grain rice (白米饭)?'

We never did find out what other form of rice they had because we were shocked or puzzled each time they asked us the question: how could there be another version of rice?

4) Read the reviews about China's dishonest taxi drivers with a pinch of salt.
Just about all the taxi drivers we had met were honest. To be very sure, I always asked if they went by meter ('打表吗?') before I boarded the cabs. One or two did not and we either did not board it at all, or got off the cab immediately.

If you are not sure why you are charged differently from the meter, ask the driver. They would explain it nicely to you. The first time I took a Beijing cab, I asked why he charged me ten dollars more politely and he explained that, unlike their Shanghai counterparts, the Beijing meters were not updated yet. So they gave pre-printed ten-dollar receipts. The ten-dollar was charged as petrol fees it seemed.

5) Don't believe the locals when they tell you 'It's a short walk from here.'
For the few times we believed them, we ended up walking for an hour eg. to Yunnan Street and Shanghai Book City.

We almost walked to Lan Xin Eatery too! It was at least 2 or 3 hours of walk, judging from the distance the cab travelled.

We could not say that they lied to us. One or two hours of walk was probably 'short' to them. But to Singaporeans, it definitely wasn't!

Do yourself a favour: take cabs wherever you want to go.

6) Keep valuables and passports with you all the time.
Don't leave them in the hotel while you are out. I have read that some hotel staff might not be honest. For peace of mind, I made sure I carried everything I considered important with me wherever I went. That included my camera and flash, even if I was not going to use my flash.

7) Do bargain, unless you are in a generous mood.
Or better yet, don't think about buying anything at all. If they see that you are 'genuinely' not interested, they would be very desperate and would let go at just about any price.

I am lousy at acting, so I had to let the sellers chop my carrot. I bought some pretty glass art at a good price though because I was not interested in it at first. The stallholder at Wangfujing shouted to me,"RMB 60 per piece!" I walked on. Not keen. He shouted again,"RMB 30? Good price!" I said no and was about to walk away when he showed his two fingers and lowered his voice,"I offer you this (RMB 20). How about that?"

I had bought two pieces at another shop for RMB 50 each, so I thought it a 'good' price for me. I bought a few more from him.

8) Change your notes before you go China, or do it at the airport.
Counterfeits are common in China. Each time I passed my notes to the sellers or cashiers, they would check the notes to make sure they were authentic notes.

Xiao Yang showed me ways on how to identify an authentic note which I would not be able to remember, but a little googling helps:

9) Don't be afraid to ask.
If you see any discrepancy on the ticket charges stated on the window and what you are asked to pay, ask the ticketing person politely why it was so. To quote a few incidents, I demonstrated my courage at The Forbidden City's ticketing counter (about the difference between rates quoted and what was shown on the counter window), The Great Wall ticketing counter (about child's ticket), the Train Station ticketing counter (for child ticket to Hangzhou) and the reception counter (for the child ticket for the soft sleeper train to Beijing).

It helped set my mind in peace knowing that I was not cheated most of the time.

10) If like me, you want to take a train from one city to another, ask the hotel staff to book the tickets for you. Most hotels have this service. You just need to pay 10% of the tickets' total price as service fees.

I wasted my first day in Shanghai searching for the ticketing office on my own. And I could have saved myself some worries of not being able to get train tickets to Hangzhou on the very day.

11) If you are on a Free & Easy trip to Shanghai and would like to join their cheap and good local tours, go to the Oriental Pearl Tower the first day you are there. There would be many young men or ladies handing out flyers for local tours. And they are very cheap. You could literally book a cheap ticket and hotel to China and fly over for F&E because their local tours are just so cheap! Don't bother looking for travel agencies at Nanjing Road as what I had done. I could find none!

If you are going Beijing, go to The Forbidden City the very first day. There are tonnes of travel agents touting customers to form tour groups for the very next day. Value for money too if you are not particular like me! If I do go back to China again, I really might just try their local tours just for the experience. However, do bear in mind that their tour groups usually consist of 35 to 50 people.

12) Some new words I have learnt:
Taxi: 打的 (da3 di2)
Power adaptor: 转换器
Local products: 土特产
Airport Terminal: 航站楼
Waitress: 服务生
Receipt: 发票 (which is also common to the Taiwanese Mandarin)

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Tian An Rega Hotel 天安瑞嘉酒店

Also found on, it was cheap and near to Tiananmen (10 to 15 minutes' walk) and Wangfujing (5 to 10 minues). For 4 days and 3 nights in a Business Standard Room for 4 pax, I paid S$279 in total.

I searched for rooms for 4 pax and in Wangfujing area.

 The reception. On the right is an auto rotating door. We were fascinated by the door.
 The unused lobby. It must have been the old reception area.

 Our room was on the 3rd floor
Clean, neat, tidy and cosy I thought. The light was a little dim though.

 Two bottles of mineral water are provided free every day.

 Evian is chargeable. RMB 35.
 Clean toilet, but we had hoped to have 4 towels instead of only 2

 Condoms and shavers are chargeable

The last night at the hotel

Review of Tian An Rega Hotel:

The hotel was nothing out of the ordinary, but it suited us fine. In terms of service, we thought the reception personnel at Astor House were more helpful. The receptionist would not help me book a place at Da Dong as she said they don't help customers to do bookings. The only help she rendered was to dial the number for me and got me to speak on the phone.

The room was clean. The hotel was quiet. The bed was equally hard as the bed at Astor House - not an issue though.

The hotel did book a cab to the airport though. No extra charges for a booking too.

I tried to tip the person who delivered the dinner to our room but he turned it down saying that they were not supposed to receive tips. But the rest of them (bellboy, person who delivered the adaptor) accepted the tips. I am not sure if it's only limited to certain people though.

I quite like the hotel for its cheap rate, convenience and accessibility to many places. I might try other hotels if I could find one that is similar in its merits if I ever go back to Beijing, just for novelty's sake, but I would recommend this hotel to someone who is not particular about bathtub or comfort and wants a good and cheap place to stay.

Some research about the hotel's accessibility before setting off:
Nearest Subway: Wangfujing (5 mins walk)

Cab from Beijing South Railway Station to Wangfujing: RMB 30 ($6)
Beijing South Railway Station – 7km to Tian An Rega Hotel Beijing

But I forgot to check the distance between Beijing Airport and the hotel. It took a good 30 to 45 minutes to reach the airport. It cost more than RMB 90 (about S$20). However, one must bear in mind that the airport is a great distance from anywhere in Central Beijing, so basically you will still pay that amount as long as you stay in the ever popular Wangfujing area.

Day 8: Evening at Tiananmen

It was still quite early to retire after we returned to the hotel from The Summer Palace, so we decided to stroll to Tiananmen to find out exactly where Tiananmen Parade Square (天安门广场). My father insisted that it was behind Mao Zedong's portrait while I maintained that it should be in front of his portrait.

As we found out, after asking one of the guards at Tiananmen, it was the huge area directly across the road! But well, we got to see how Tiananmen was like in the evening.

 Lights up at Tiananmen

 Incidentally, they had their flag-lowering ceremony. Thousands of people were present just to witness the flag-lowering, which was nothing to scream about. We waited for an hour for it as if it was going to be a big deal!

 A mother taking a picture of her daughter
 Old Beijing popsicle (老北京冰棒) RMB 1

We ate this almost every day. It is made of banana flavoured sugar frosting it seems even though it tasted like a normal ice-cream. It does not melt despite under the sun for hours.
It is sold at just about every tourist attractions ie. Great Wall, Summer Palace, Tiananmen.
We love it.

Day 8: The Summer Palace 颐和园 & Yang Da Ye Steamboat 羊大爷涮肉

We took the train to The Summer Palace. We exited where the sign read 'North Gate'. We were quite lost when at the exit though. Had to ask one of the local who happened to be a tourist as well.

There were lots of tourguides who would approach you to ask if you want a tourguide. We engaged one at RMB 60 (S$12) after our experience at the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. We felt that we did not understand the significance of the structures and thought we would do better with a guide.
Suzhou Street Market
Emperor Qianlong had a water town market erected to amuse himself, his many wives and mother.

The guide said that there was no need to buy the full ticket which granted access to all the attractions as most attractions were empty or not worth entering as they were under renovation. Suzhou Street Market was one of them and she pointed out to us that it was empty.
First, we climbed the Hill of Longevity (万寿山). Almost died.

It stood at a height of 58.5m. According to the guide, the Hill was erected to celebrate the 60th birthday of Emperor Qianlong's mother. The ancient people believed that most people could live only till the age of 60, so it was decreed that the Hill could not exceed or meet the mark of 60m - to signify that the emperor's mother had not reached the limit yet.
A structure destroyed by the Eight-Nation Alliance (八国联军)

The Eight-Nation Alliance was a military alliance formed by Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to suppress China's anti-foreign Boxers.

The Alliance not only brought an end to the Boxers, but also plummeted the Old and New Summer Palaces as well as ravaged the whole capital.
The Summer Palace is an area where positive fengshui surrounds. It is ordered that no structure around the Summer Palace can be built taller than it, lest it obstructs or destroys the fengshui.

These little buddha heads were missing. Two versions of explanation:
1) The children tourists plucked the heads away, which the tour guide felt was more believable.
2) The Eight-Nation Alliance thought these were made of gold and thinking that the head of the buddha is the most precious, they plucked them off.

 Imperial Courtyard 皇家四合院

Where imperial food is served and female waitresses dress up in Princess get-up

Also an attraction that the guide said was not worth going as the dishes were ridiculously priced. Obama and Jiang Zemin dined there though.

The Imperial Courtyard oversees Lake Kunming (昆明湖). Tourists could sail on the Lake but by the time the short tour with the guide ended, we were beat and just wanted to get out of the place.

 'Longevity' 寿 written with just one complete stroke. Within the character is written '寿比南山不老松', comparing one's longevity to the greatness of the South Mountain and pine tree, both deemed long-living.

 We saw this 'You're welcome to visit the emperor's throne'.

And we realised we were tricked

Photo-taking: RMB 30 for one position or one set of dressing
The salespeople would persuade you to allow your family to do two, totalling RMB 60 for each person.

 Long Corridor 长廊

The longest corridor in the Guinness World Record.
 On each beam is painted a different picture. 14, 000 pictures in all.
Amazingly, the colours remained vibrant even after many years.
 The stories mainly come from Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义)

We were brought to this gallery where we saw the transformation of Cloisonne (景泰蓝) - from raw to made. Empress Cixi (seated) was crazy about Cloisonne and decreed that no one except the royal family could wear Cloisonne.

It was the first time I came across Jing Tai Lan or Cloisonne.

Definition from the net:
Jing Tai Lan is a combination of Chinese traditional bronze and china arts, paintings, carving arts and foreign enamel techniques.

Jing Tai Lan is also known as Fa Lang (珐琅)
The process of making vases using Jing Tai Lan
Marble Boat

Emperor Qianlong built this boat in 1755. It was destroyed by the Eight-Nation Alliance when they plummeted The Summer Palace in 1860. It was rebuilt by Empress Cixi in the 1893 in western style when she celebrated her 50th birthday.

The Marble Boat is not entirely made of marble. The body is made of wood but painted to look like marble. The only marble components are the two wheels by the side of the boat.

An old saying goes, "water can carry the boat as well as capsize it" (水能载舟,亦能覆舟) meaning that water symbolizing the common people can uphold the emperor and they can overthrow him. Emperor Qianlong had the huge Marble Boat fastened in the water to indicate the steadfast rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Stained glass, a western feature, of the Marble Boat
We asked the guide for her recommendation on a nice place to have our lunch. She asked her husband to drive us to a nearby area for mutton steamboat for RMB 20.

Decor that greeted us at the door
The table setting
They feature many local stars who I do not recognise
The sauce with peanut scent
Do you read the character 'Lamb'(羊)?

Spiciness was out for us so we were recommended to this 'traditional stock' (传统锅底). Now that I am typing the review for this shop and looking at the receipt, I realised it was indeed plain water (纯净水). To think we were wondering how come the soup tasted so bland!
Mutton (羊肉筋涮肉) in small portion RMB 12
How it looks after being dipped into the steamboat

The meat was so thinly sliced that the moment I dipped it into the steaming soup, it broke away from my chopsticks and swam in the steamboat!

And it tasted heavenly together with the sauce! I have never loved mutton that much! Now I know why God always asked for a lamb as a sacrifice!
Buns (糖火烧) RMB 4
My father ate them. He said they were hard and 'not nice'. I didn't try them.
More mutton (御品上脑) in small portion RMB 13, vermicelli (粉丝) RMB 6 and vegetables RMB 8

We preferred the latter mutton as it had more fats and tasted more tender.
Total bill: RMB 95 (S$ 19)! Is that cheap or what?!!

Was it a good eating experience? Definitely.
I never knew mutton could be this tender and soft. If I ever return to Beijing, I would very much want to go back to the shop again! One thing to note is the shop does not serve rice, but we would take the vermicelli anytime!

北京市, 海淀区, 万泉河路,12号
Tel: 010-62653878

Yang Da Ye
12 Wanquan Helu, Haidian District