Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tips on travelling to Beijing

My tips are kind of limited to only my experience, so this post should rightly be entitled "Tips on travelling to Beijing in early winter with kids while staying with family." As you can see, the tips would be slightly skewed! But there are some general tips about Beijing that are valid no matter what season, where you stay or who you go with. Here are some of them:


You may think that you wouldn't have a problem in Beijing if you're Chinese and speak Mandarin. Sure, it's less foreign than being in say, Japan, but shamefully, we still struggled quite a bit. The Beijing-ers roll their tongues a lot when they speak and that makes them hard to understand to the untrained ear. Taxi drivers are the worst. Many of them come from provinces and have very heavy accents, plus they're not the most communicative lot to begin with. Often, we couldn't be sure if the driver really knew where he was going or we were just going on a scenic tour. So we ended up having to write the name and address of each place we were going to, so we could flash the card at the driver and trust that his grunt or silence meant he knew the destination. (Funnily enough though, we never have communication problems with savvy shopkeepers at Silk Market!)

As typical English-speaking Singaporeans, our written Chinese is even worse than our spoken. This makes reading signs problematic, especially when you're in a restaurant where the entire menu is in Chinese with no pictures (remember the cuisine tends to be different from back home so we sometimes can't even hazard a guess what the dish is).

Oh and to add to the confusion, many of the Chinese phrases are different in Singapore than in China (and you thought it was just plain ole Chinese!) Eg. in Singapore, supermarket is 超级市场 but in Beijing, it's just 超市. Taxi is not 德士, it's 出租车. If you want the driver to go left, you don't say "转左", you say "左拐".

On my last trip to Beijing, the driver told me a funny story of an ang moh who tried to display his Chinese prowess by speaking Mandarin. He wanted to say "右拐!" (turn right) but because of his inability to pronounce the correct tone, he ended up saying "有鬼!" (got ghost), prompting the driver to ask bemused, "哪里有鬼?" (where's the ghost?) So his advice? If you can't handle the Mandarin, just speak simple English. They'll know you are an ignorant foreigner and treat you with kid gloves.


Taxis are by far, the most convenient way to get around. They're cheap and abundant. Starting fare is RMB 10 (S$2.20) and it gets you a long way. When we were travelling in the city, even with the usually horrendous traffic, a 45-minute ride generally only came up to about RMB 30-40 (S$6.50-8.80). But be warned, the taxi drivers we encountered were mostly surly and sometimes incomprehensible. Although they usually soften up a little when you talk about how wonderful the Beijing Olympics was. They really are very proud of it, as they should be.

But if you're planning to go further out of the city, like to the Great Wall, it's preferable to hire a driver and car. It costs more but for RMB 500 (S$110), you can usually get wheels for the whole day, giving you the freedom to make multiple stops. Also at the Great Wall, it's not that easy to find a cab when you're done so having a driver waiting for you is very convenient. By the way, you can't "call" for a cab in Beijing. When we ask the concierge at my cousin's apartment to call us a cab, she actually intercoms the guard at the external gate of the estate, who directs a taxi outside to enter the compound! That's right, it's manual. No fancy fleet management systems here... yet. We didn't realise this until we asked a waitress at a restaurant to call us a cab and she went outside to try to hail one. Doh!


There are cuisines galore in Beijing, so you'll never starve. There's also street food everywhere but we gave most of this a miss as China is not particularly known for its hygiene standards in food preparation. But some, like this cart on the right, sells steaming hot sweet potatoes which are so good on a cold, wintry day.

What with the melamine scare, fake eggs and so on, you really want to be careful, especially when you're travelling with kids. I would recommend eating at respectable restaurants. The food tends to be cheap anyway, compared to Singapore, even the upmarket ones.

Don't think that Chinese food is Chinese food. Beijing food tends to be terribly greasy and salty. Even when my cousin's 阿姨 cooked for us, the food was delicious but oilier than we were accustomed to (and it seems this is already an improvement!) Maybe because of the harsh weather, the locals have to top up the fuel (literally) to stay warm. My cousin's colleague was mentioning that when she first came, she was startled to find out that it is not uncommon for the average Chinese to consume some three litres of cooking oil EACH MONTH.

The Beijing-ers, being northern Chinese, don't as a rule, have rice at every meal, so if you want some, you have to ask for it. And it may not even be available on the menu. The Chinese eat early, so try to have your lunch before 2pm and dinner before 8.30pm, otherwise you'll find your choices sorely diminished as many places would be closed.


I'm giving this a separate mention because they left such an impression and for the wrong reasons. I thought the public toilets would have been spruced up for the Olympics but apparently, not enough. At many of the major tourist attractions, the toilets are still filthy (although as a general rule, they are better once after the paid entrance area) and most of them are still squat toilets, not Western ones. I nearly died when I saw the one at the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

And forget about the ones in bargain shopping areas like Panjiayuan and Silk Market. They are revolting and many don't even have doors that go all the way up. In fact, my cousin says that if she needs to visit the ladies while she's at Silk Market, she takes a short cab ride to the nearest 5-star hotel! Lesley-Anne was so put off by the toilets she usually waited till we were back at the apartment.

But if you really have to go, the ones in the larger and newer shopping malls are pretty decent. So are the ones at upmarket restaurants. So plan your visits!

Packing for winter

We were there only in early winter, where the temperature ranged from 2 to 12 degrees celcius, yet many days, it was freezing. For kids, you should pack a down feather jacket, long johns, a woollen sweater, woollen gloves and socks, and a hat that covers the ears and cuts out the wind. That's the basic. If you're going to be there mid or late winter (why???) where the mercury can plunge to -20 degrees, pack like an Eskimo. There's something about the winds in Beijing that's just relentlessly cruel.

Apart from cold, it's also desert dry. Within a day of arrival, Lesley-Anne's skin starting itching - it's a sign of the skin flaking and breaking up from dryness. Pack loads of body moisturiser, especially the thick gooey types that are too sticky in humid Singapore, you'll be glad you have them in Beijing. Lesley-Anne practically finished a full size tube on her own for this one-week trip. Also pack lip balm and hair conditioner. On the bright side, Lesley-Anne's teen acne disappeared while we were in Beijing - everything dries to a crisp here!

Other than keeping you moist, the lotion also helps stave off static. We kept zapping each other throughout the trip, it was painful and not funny. At one point, I even refused to hold on to the camera, I kept getting shocked even through my gloves. Only Andre was spared so he became our doorman, opening all cab doors for us.

Oh and if your kid has a sensitive respiratory tract (like Andre), I strongly recommend you bring a Ventolin inhaler, just in case. I brought this as advised by my doctor and it proved to be a life-saver. Even though Andre doesn't have asthma, the combination of smog and cold, dry air would irritate his throat and hinder his breathing - the inhaler helped open up the airways almost instantly and made him much more comfortable.

That's all I can think of for now, so I'll just end by saying Beijing is not as child-unfriendly as you might imagine. It's a terrific mix of the old and new, often right next to each other. If you want a rich dose of culture and history with a tinge of fun and without breaking the bank, Beijing is the place to visit.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Thank you Beijing, we had fun

Day 7 (Tues, 25 Nov 2008)

All too soon, it's time to leave Beijing. Sniff! Why does time always fly when you're having fun? My cousin asked Andre, "So which part of Beijing did you like best?" Without hesitation, he answered, "I like your house best. Because it's warm like my house." My son, the diplomat.

Well! Since it's his favourite part of Beijing, we spent a good part of the morning taking photos in my cousin's apartment.

I've not yet talked about my cousin's two cats, whom she calls her sons. They deserve a special mention as they'd shared the space with us (or rather, we invaded their space) for a week. They are absolutely beautiful long-haired cats who share her bed and rule the house. The one on the left is 乖 乖 (obedient) and the one on the right is 桃桃 (peach).

乖乖 is a stray my cousin picked up four years ago and 桃桃 is a companion she just recently adopted from a pet shelter. 乖乖 completely resented our presence. He would hide under my cousin's comforter sulking when we were around and emerge only when she returned home from work, yowling and complaining of neglect. He only warmed up a little towards the end of our visit, granting Lesley-Anne the privilege of stroking him and allowing his picture to be taken. 桃桃, on the other hand, is a socialite, indulging in our petting and attention, and helping himself to the usually dominant 乖乖's food while the latter was on strike.

But both were a great source of amusement for us - cats are such characters!

We took a last minute detour to a tea shop within the apartment's estate where again, the shopkeepers rush to serve my cousin fine tea and snacks. (She gets the royal treatment everywhere she goes!)

Then we piled all our luggage into a hired car and drove off for lunch enroute to the airport.

The restaurant serves Mongolian hotpot and is right next to where my cousin works, so she and her friend/colleague (the one who bought us that delectable Peking duck dinner) could join us for lunch.

This restaurant is more upmarket than Little Sheep that we patronised earlier. Each person gets his or her very own hot pot with tonic soup. According to my cousin's friend, this tastes almost the same as the Japanese shabu shabu, right down to the sesame dip, but at a fraction of the price.

We ordered several platters of very finely sliced lamb and beef - delicious. I could eat a mountain of these, especially since you generally don't get served rice in Beijing, so no carbo to load up on!

Here's just part of what we ordered.

And then it's off to the airport for our flight home. I think Beijing was a bigger success than we could have imagined. All that history and culture that I was worried wouldn't sit well with the kids turned out to be quite palatable, probably due to the breathtaking beauty of the scenery. In many places, the scenes looked like something straight out of your chinese literature book.

I'm not sure if we'll ever make it back to Beijing although it's tempting as my cousin has so generously extended an open invite. But for now, the kids are savouring their memories by replaying Kung Fu Panda over and over - yup, we brought it home with us.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Which is the real Temple of Heaven?

Day 6 (Mon, 24 Nov 2008)

Today, we set out for Tiantan (Temple of Heaven) which is where the Emperor used to go to perform certain rituals, offer sacrifices and "communicate" with heaven.

On arrival, Lesley-Anne commented, "It looks exactly like the Forbidden City!" Well, I guess to Philistines like us, the architecture does look pretty similar.

But there are differences, even to the uninitiated. First, the Temple of Heaven has sprawling, expansive grounds - the garden is actually larger than the umm... built up area (I'm a city gal! I don't know what it's called!) You pay a fee to enter the grounds, then there is an additional fee to enter the temple areas. We didn't bother to explore the gardens but there were many people just strolling, it's very scenic even in winter.

We entered by the South gate and came to the Circular Mound. The walls and staircases surrounding and leading to the Circular Mound are all made of marble. The Circular Mound is paved with 9 concentric circles (symbolising the 9 heavens), and the main attraction is the middle Heavenly Centre stone where the Emperor would stand to talk to the heavens, as that's the most resonant spot.

Of course that was the spot for a photo op, all the tourists were clammering to stand there (everyone wants to be an Emperor even just for 5 seconds!) And of course we weren't any different - here's Emperor Andre, in royal yellow no less.

That's one of the main differences I found between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Where the Forbidden City is all angles and squares, the Temple of Heaven is all about circles.

From there, we walked on to the Imperial Vault of Heaven (left pic) which housed the important relics for worship ceremonies. More interesting though was the surrounding grounds which had an Echo Wall (supposedly two people can talk at opposite ends of the wall and be able to hear each other) and strategically placed stones where you can hear an echo if you stand at those positions and clap. Lesley-Anne tried it (right pic below), it works! Something about the way the whole place was constructed in a circular manner. Don't ask me what Andre was doing in the picture below.

Then it's more walking past giant gates along a very long walkway to the Temple of Prayer for Good Harvests (the name is self-explanatory.) Again, everything was built in circles and in threes or nines, including the three-tiered roof.

Very ornate and pretty but you know, it starts to look the same after a while. We exited from the East gate and walked towards Hong Qiao Pearl Market, which is supposedly another cheap shopping mall similar to Silk Market. But the real gem was behind Hong Qiao Market - Toys City!! Wah - Andre was so excited, now THIS was the real Temple of Heaven for him! Four floors of every kind of toy imaginable, from action figures to soft toys to electronic cars. One floor sold entirely stationery. And every floor you ascended, the toys got bigger and bigger, until on the top floor, you have toys in gigantic boxes, including motorised cars and bikes.

Everything was dirt cheap - Andre got three action figures, including a large one which lights up and speaks when a button is pressed, for only RMB 40 (S$8.80). Lesley-Anne bought two ridiculously cute stuffed giraffes for RMB 30 (S$6.70). Of course you have to bargain lah!

We were having so much fun that by the time we decided to go for lunch, it was already 2.30pm. There was nothing much to eat in the vicinity so we took a cab back to Solana which was close by. We'd actually planned to try out one of the many restaurants along the food street but alamak, everything was closed! Here, the restaurants generally close at 2pm for lunch, which was rather frustrating.

So guess where we ended up? Back at the Japanese restaurant we went to yesterday! It was the only one opened. In fact, when the waitresses saw us, she had to turn on the lights, we were their only customers. Really, nobody eats at odd hours here??

But no matter, the food was still yummy. Above is a pic of a sushi roll with prawn tempura. Watch Andre dig in!

And then it's back to my cousin's place where the kids happily played with their new toys (and watched Kung Fu Panda again) for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The art of shopping and a relaxing foot massage

Day 5 (Sun, 23 Nov 2008)

Sunday and it's time for some shopping! We headed out for Panjiayuan, a weekend market. When I was here three years ago, rows and rows of stalls sold an amazing array of knick knacks, accessories, paintings and antiques.

It was changed somewhat. The knick knacks have given way to fake antiques, fake jewelry and jade, and more paintings. Most of the paintings are copies, but I have to say they are beautifully copied. I've always wondered why if someone can paint so well, they don't just create their own artwork instead of copying another artist's. Ah well.

We bought a painting from this guy on the right. It's a modern piece of 8 cats - it's a gift for my cousin who loves cats. The painting is on the left (it's not a print though it looks like one.)

You can tell from the way the stall keepers are dressed that it was a frightfully cold day. The temperature was similar to the past few days but it was cloudy and the winds were ruthless.

The kids didn't enjoy Panjiayuan at all. You can see their unhappy faces in the picture. Not just because it was cold but because we encountered the full force of spitting. Almost every step we took, we could hear the ubiquitous throat clearing "rrhhhoiict!" and the kids would jump in horror and look for the accompanying projectile. Throughout the visit, Lesley-Anne and Andre would peer at the ground and shriek, "Don't step, spit!' I don't know why it was more pervasive here than at other tourist attractions, maybe it was the type of crowd that thronged the place. It was pretty disgusting, the locals spit anywere, even along the aisle where the stalls were. Kenneth's friend had remarked, "What's worse than stepping on spit? Slipping on frozen spit."

We spent only about an hour at Panjiayuan, before we left for Solana, a new shopping mall, to meet my cousin for lunch. Happy faces again!

My cousin had recommended eating at a Japanese restaurant at the mall. The restaurant was very enterprising, it offered a wide range of sushi rolls with names like "Olympic Special" (left pic below - it's tuna, avocado, cream cheese and topped with egg roe). How to resist?

Right pic above is the unagi (eel) sushi. As you can see, the portions are humongous - one of these is easily the size of three back home! When Andre was eating, he suddenly said, "Bone!" and spat out a white chunk. Bone in sushi? Then on closer examination, he exclaimed, "It's my tooth!" Haha! Anyway, it was a fabulous lunch, once again, fantastic recommendation by my cousin.

After that, we headed for Silk Market. For the uninitiated, Silk Market is a huge seven-storey shopping haven which sells anything from silk to souvenirs, from apparel to knick knacks. They claim to have eradicated all the fake goods in time for the Olympics but I really don't see how they can back up their claim. The shops blatantly display knock-offs and if there's something you can't find already crammed into a little stall, the enterprising shopkeeper immediately whips out a brochure where you can pick from a line up of any of your couture brands.

But whether you can pick up good bargains at Silk Market (vs being conned out of all your monetary possessions) lies singularly in your bargaining skills. Here is where we defer to the unrivaled skills of my 大姐. She had parked herself and my kids at a favourite tea shop, where the shop owners rush to serve her their top grade tea and even allow her to store her packages (she's obviously a favoured customer, she has bought many an exquisite teapot and tea leaves from the shop).

Then Kenneth and I would go shopping and when we had picked out our purchases, he would run to fetch my cousin and she would then browbeat the shopkeeper into slashing the prices. She's a pro, I tell you! At one shoe shop, she scolded and harangued the shopkeeper into submission, we managed to get a pair of leather boots, two pairs of track shoes, a pair of fashion running shoes and a pair of hiking shoes for about S$100. Five pairs in total, all of exceptional quality. Lesley-Anne told my cousin in awe, "Wah, you are so 厉害!" (fierce)

Aside: we 'd brought the kids to the shop and the female shopkeepers started fussing over Andre, exclaiming, "真可愛!" ("so cute") and "好帅!" ("so handsome"). Andre would then act coy which would bring forth another round of exclamations. (Insert Lesley-Anne rolling eyes here.) Everywhere we went in Beijing, Andre attracted a lot of attention. At first, we thought maybe it's because he's wearing spectacles but apparently that's quite common among Chinese children nowadays, so that can't be it. Maybe it's the prevalent boy-preference in China. Auntie killer strikes again!

After Silk Market, we went to the Flower Market for a short look-see, before my cousin suggested we go for a foot massage at a spa. Lesley-Anne wasn't too keen (she claimed she didn't like the idea of strange hands touching her), so Kenneth brought her back to my cousin's apartment. Andre has no such inhibitions so off to the spa we went!

The ladies at the spa decided that Andre's feet were too small to be massaged, so they offered him a head and shoulders massage instead.

Again, we were treated to a round of "真可愛!" (Really, what IS it about him? I'm baffled.) At the spa, you can order complimentary food and drink while you enjoy your massage, and here, you can see Andre thoroughly luxuriating in his Macau pork chop bun while being tenderly kneaded by the masseuse. In the picture on the right, he was so comfortable that he actually fell asleep! This boy really knows how to enjoy life.

It was a long day, but after that relaxing session, we mustered enough energy to walk to our last stop - Tom's err... Embroidery Shop. All expats in Beijing know this shop and no, it doesn't actually sell embroidery. I'll leave it up to you to hazard a guess.

Hint: we left the shop with a large bag in tow and the contents will keep the whole family entertained for many, many hours.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A day of Chinese mascots - pandas and acrobats

Day 4 (Sat, 22 Nov 2008)

After three consecutive days of ancient history and culture, it was time for a little warm and fuzzy... pandas! None of us had ever seen a panda in real life, so we thought we'd take a little trip to the Beijing zoo, home to the largest, umm, collection? group? den? *checking wikipedia*... guess what, it's a pandemonium of pandas!

Andre prepared for the trip by watching Kung Fu Panda four times in two days on dvd at my cousin's place.

It was sunny and warm, a nice change. The zoo was rather crowded, maybe because it was a Saturday. Entry to the panda enclosure costed an additional RMB 5 (S$1.10), probably since 90% of visitors are only interested in this attraction.

It did not disappoint, there are three different enclosures just for pandas - an outdoor one, an Olympics one and another for the Asian Games. There is also an extensive exhibition and display area. Each enclosure had a few pandas although seeing them at close range could be a bit of a challenge. Anytime a panda waddled near the glass, a tornado of excited visitors would instantly swarm towards that area, armed with flashing cameras. Pandemonium is right!

Can't blame them though, those creatures are just so darn adorable. Everything about them, from their lazy, lumbering gait to their tear drop black eye patches, screams "cute". Their unelegant-ness has an uncanny human quality - check out these poses.

And here's the money shot. All together now, "awwwwwwww"!

We didn't visit the rest of the zoo. We passed by a couple of other enclosures and it was pretty awful. Only the pandas have landscaping in their luxuriously spacious enclosures, due to their esteemed status. All other animals are caged in cold, tiny spaces. We saw a few monkeys in a bare, cemented cage clinging on pitifully to a radiator for warmth. Pretty upsetting, especially for animal lovers.

By the way, we came across more funny signs (the left one was above a toilet roll dispenser).

Some left us scratching our heads, especially the last line of the left sign below.

We took a cab to Shin Kong Place 新光天地, on the recommendation of Kenneth's friend. It turned out to be a super luxury shopping mall, fronted by Prada, Gucci, Bvlgari, blah blah. Not her fault, she wouldn't have known that this is so not our gig. Pearls to swine. Swine without cash to burn. We didn't really feel like eating at a posh restaurant, so we walked around a bit and came across a familiar sign - KFC. I usually deride Andre if he asks to eat fast food in a foreign land, as I think it's a wasted opportunity for a culinary adventure, but for some strange reason that day, we gave in pretty quickly, much to his delight. Maybe it was a subconscious rebellion against the snootiness of that mall.

Our one lapse and we paid for it. It was by far the worst KFC fare I've ever had. The chicken was soggy, very greasy and very salty. The mashed potato didn't even taste like potato, it was like watered down cardboard with some tasteless, starchy gravy. But obviously this opinion is not shared by the Chinese because KFC opens one new outlet EVERYDAY in China. So it's more likely just another case of differences in tastes.

Anyway, lesson learnt. DON'T EAT FAST FOOD IN CHINA! After a short rest and dinner back at my cousin's place, we headed back out to catch an acrobatic show at Chaoyang Theatre. The tickets were rather pricey but we thought since we were here, we should at least catch what is an iconic activity in China. We called beforehand and asked for the cheapest tickets, which were RMB 180 (S$40) each. Interestingly, when we collected our tickets at the door and entered the theatre, we were ushered right in front to the centre portion of the theatre with seats marked "VIP".

Looking around the theatre, they appeared to be best seats in the house. Eh? But we bought the cheapest tickets! Then we noticed that the section where we were sitting was all occupied by foreigners - groups of Chinese tourists were relegated to the side and back seats. We suspect that foreigners are automatically given the best seats so they would leave with a good impression, regardless of how much they paid. Either that or we didn't actually buy the cheapest tickets. Whatever. I'm confused.

The show itself is quite nice. I'm sure you would have seen many of these feats on tv, acrobatics have been televised for the longest time. But just as with concerts, there's always something special about seeing it live - the atmosphere just makes it more enjoyable and exciting.

You're actually not allowed to take pictures during the show, but this being China, nobody obeyed the rule. So here are some shots Kenneth took.