Sunday, October 22, 2006

Other tid-bits from China...

I was part of a team dinner at Lei Garden, within walking distance of my hotel, the Grand Hyatt, Beijing. The dinner had been set up in a private dining room; there were two large circular tables that seated the team of twenty-five.

The restaurant featured Guangdong delicacies (more commonly known as Cantonese). Guangdong is located in Southern China, and its cuisine is unique among Chinese cuisines.

I noticed all waitresses wore Bluetooth headsets, allowing them to speak with each other in low voices. Dinner consisted for multiple soups, meats, and vegetables; exotic preparations that were put in front of us, one after the other.

This was also the first time I tasted the famous Peking Duck. Dessert consisted of a sweet dumpling filled with a dark brown gooey concoction that seemed to be made of sesame. All in all, a dining experience that was quite different from the regular Chinese fare in India.

In addition to Peking Duck, the other 'must-have' dish in China is Beggar's Chicken (see attached story for why it is named so).

The waitressess positioned themselves at the doors of the dining room, the elevator, and the entrance of the building waving us good-bye at the end (sort of like the flight attendants do when passengers disembark from the plane).

Many have asked me if the Chinese food in China tastes as good as it does here in India :-) Actually, I loved the food, and I think anyone who is non-vegetarian and enjoys sea-food will do so as well. One difference I noticed was the use of bowls instead of plates to have your food. I was initally a little confused; didn't want to find out I was eating out of a soup bowl or, worse, a finger-bowl!

And, I discovered Jasmine tea! One of my colleagues had asked me to get some for him. When I entered a tea shop, I immediately discovered the many varieties. The good quality one is shaped like 'pearls'. Long tea leaves are wound until they form 'pearls' and then covered with Jasmine petals. When the tea leaves have absorbed the jamine juices/flavor, the petals are removed.

Great after-dinner tea; I am now a convert!


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More Beijing

Beijing literally means 'northern capital' (jing stands for capital). While all signs around you point to a city on the move... huge buildings of glass, steel, and concrete coming up on the roads from the airport, to the Great Wall and as you move to the industrial parks in the suburbs, you also see signs all around you that this city has a past. Beijing existed as a city almost all the way back to the first millenium B.C! The city has been burnt down and re-built several times during this period, mostly by the invading Mongols from the north.

I tried to cram in as many sights and sounds of this exciting city during the four days I was here. Before I flew back, I was able to see the Llama Temple, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Tiananmen Square. I thought the Temple of Heaven was really the best of the lot; intricately decorated structures, very peaceful place, and a huge garden all around with lots of greenery. Another thing one notices in the old Chinese relegious artifacts (the original relegion, Daoism or Taoism pre-dates the other modern religions of China such as Buddhism by many years) is the similarities with some Indus Valley and Egyptian ones as far as their gods are concerned. They are mostly combinations of different animals in one, such as a dragon-faced horse; they also have artifacts of the Mother Goddess, common to all these religions.

I wasn't too impressed by the Forbidden City, from which almost ten emperors ruled China. It's like one of our palaces in India (of course, architecturally quite different); currently it houses museums from the dynasties that ruled here). This can easily consume 2-4 hours of your time depending on your interest level. BTW, Much of the Forbidden City is under renovation right now (probably in preparation for the 2008 Olympics).

Tiananmen Square is about 440,000 square meters, making it the largest public square in the world! It was windy and there was a chill in the air, so I didn't stay too long here. Temperatues in Beijing can go down to -16 C during winters; however, there hasn't been snow in recent times. The elaborate flag-hoisting ceremony at Tiananmen Square is sort of similar to our own version at the Indo-Pak border, but all of this is like a time-warp and doesn't fit into today's world...
Our most fun experience was the shopping and haggling to get to the right price... well, actually you never quite can figure out the right price. That leather Gucci handbag for US $8... too expensive? How about an Geogia Armani leather belt for US $5... hmm... And btw, these aren't cheap looking imitations. The quality and workmanship are good, and they look like the real things.

All the vendors seem to be school and college girls specializing in the art of marketing; they have mastered the basics of the English language: 'moment' (hold on, don't go, I will come up with a better price), 'how much?' (don't like my price, well, what price do you think this is worth?), and it goes on... Interestingly they all have handheld calculators on which they tap out the price, and then push it to you so you can do the same... the trick is to start at least 70% lower than their initial price: learnt that the hard way :(

Ate at a awesome place in the Grand Hyatt. The restaurant is called Made in China, and has been rated the best place to eat in all of North East China. Splendid ambience, food, and service.

The restaurant serves contemporary Chinese cooking... please note that their specialities, Peking Duck and Beggars' Chicken have to be ordered in advance when making reservations (at least a few hours in advance; they get sold out quick!). Multiple show kitchens, innovative presentation and a great wine selection complete the experience.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

In China for the first time!

Everything so far has been impressive! Everywhere I have been in Beijing so far is clean, has great roads, and seems no different from any modern capital city in the Western world. Certainly much better building, roads, cellphone coverage, etc., than most cities in India.

The Grand Hyatt in Beijing is impressive too. In size, fit & finish, and service! Great restaurants -- traditional Chinese, contemporary Chinese, Italian, sushi bar and cafe; live entertainment in the evening at the lobby area. Also the hotel is within walking distance of Tiannenman Square and the Forbidden City. Strongly recommended for those who can afford to stay here!

Went to visit the Great Wall today at Badaling, which is about 90 mins drive from the Tiannenman Square area where my hotel is located. The Wall was every bit as impressive as I expected it to...but you really need to climb up some steep slope/steps to get to the highest rampart.

After about an hour or so or climbing up and back, tried my hand at shopping for souvenirs! You have to excel at bargaining; after I bought a Chinese doll for RMB 200, I realized that the same could have been bought at RMB 75 after some tough bargaining, but I learnt quickly and the rest of the shopping was quite a lot of fun. The vendors were very persistent but went about doing this in a lighthearted and disarming manner :)


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Enroute to China

Got back at 4AM from Goa and had to start packing the same day for my Beijing trip. Decided to fly to Mumbai and spend the night there so I could get a good night's sleep before catching the 11AM Singapore Airlines flight.

The Grand Hyatt had put me on their Executive Club floor, and walked me to my room... One look and we realized something was wrong; the room was being cleaned and not yet ready... They were most aplogetic and promptly upgraded me to a suite on the Exec Club floor.
Slept like a baby...after the previous night on a second class sleeper and after a quick breakfast was off to the airport. Oh miracle! I have never seen the International Airport so free of crowds... have to always take this flight! The entire airport was free of the usual crowds; seems like this is one of the few flights that take off during this time.

Now that Singapore Air upgraded me to PPS Club (they do that if you accumulate enough miles through Business or First class travel on this airline), I was able to check out their First Class lounge. They had a lot of good food from one of the good Singapore restaurants this week (some special promotion). Great full-service bar, but more crowded than I had expected.

Time to kill, which is why I am writing this from the lounge at Changi Airport! More later...


Monday, October 09, 2006

More pics from our Goa weekend!


Weekend @ Goa

Just came back after yet another awesome long weekend at Goa. We were a group of about 50+ people travelling together. Stayed at the Radisson White Sands Resort Hotel for the first time; the resort is located in South Goa, about 20-30 mins drive from Margao railway station.

Yes, that's another highlight of this trip: a train journey after almost five years! And that too, in second class...the great Indian travel experience after years of Business Class travel In spite of all the horror stories a few of my colleagues primed me with before I set out, the train journey was actually fun! And this in spite of the 3 hour wait at Pune Station for a late-running Nizamuddin-Goa Express.

Anyway, the Radisson White Sands is pretty similar in design to the Park Hyatt Resort hotel, also in the South Goan beach-front. However, I think the Park Hyatt has better designed rooms (one of the best I have stayed in ever with open-sky shower areas and excellent sunken bath).

The seas were rough, and the high tide most of the day ensured that we didn't venture too much into the waves. However, the resort has a long, winding and excellent swimming pool (or a series of interconnected pools). Nandini just wouldn't come out of the water, and so I stayed put too most of the day.

The water was a little cold, but the pool-bar (with the barstools underwater and great music!) served a mean concoction called Brain Damage...a couple of shot glasses later...there was enough warmth inside of me to have survived the Arctic :D

The Spa has authentic Kerala Ayurvedic massage and therapy sessions (btw, the Park Hyatt at Goa has a much larger menu). The wife and I tried out their 60-minute Rejuvination Massage, that includes a Steam Sauna and Scalp Rub, on the last day -- very nice, relaxing yet not intense -- and reluctantly packed up up to return to the madness of daily life...

Oh, and btw, I finally had dinner at Martin's Corner... had been meaning to do this for ever but never got around to doing this before. Turned out to be a nice evening...gorged on seafood (so much that I had to stay away from breakfast the next day!).


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

My first China trip!

I have my China visa now and looking forward to my first trip to China. It is going to be a short 4-day trip, but I am hoping to cover as much of Beijing as possible and a quick trip to the Great Wall too. Flying Singapore Air as usual, which means this will turn out to be a 18 hour journey! But I will get to try out the First Class lounge in Singapore since I now am a PPS Club member. Among other things, I have been told, you can order your own masterpieces on canvas in China (Mona Lisa, or the Last Supper) for considerable cheaper price than anywhere else in the world...sounds interesting!