Father/Son Trip to China

My dad always dreamed of going to China. It's our heritage. This is the story of our weeklong stay in Beijing

Father/Son Trip to China

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Seaotter71 on August 17, 2006

A brief break between jobs allowed me to go with my dad on a trip to China. My dad is full-blooded Chinese, but born and raised in Panama. As a young man, tradition dictated he visit China, but the political climate at the time made it impossible. He’s seen every show and read every book, including dozens of cookbooks. This last is rather strange, since he doesn't cook. When questioned why he spends so much money on cookbooks, his answer is always, "They remind me of my mother." What can you say to that?

Given all this, it was a surprise how hard he resisted the idea. Still, I enlisted everyone who held any sway and pulled every dirty, guilt-exploiting trick I knew. And so the Kam boys set off for a week in Beijing.

We of course hit all the main sights: the mind-boggling Forbidden City, the intricately detailed Temple of Heaven, the sprawling Summer Palace, and, of course, the formidable Great Wall. They all exceeded our imagination with their scale and grandeur. Not even rain and the frenzied scaffolding required to freshen up the sites for the 2008 Olympics could diminish the impact of these architectural icons.

This week both catered to and demolished every preconceived notion I had. Preconceived idea: Retirees doing Tai Chi at dawn. Mind-blowing observation: some of the ladies wielded swords while doing it.

I have a bone to pick with every writer, both amateur and professional, who convinced me I was going to starve in Mainland China. While I am sure things have improved and Beijing is quite different from rural China, the food was extraordinary! There were four-story golden palaces overflowing with Cantonese dim sum, packed hole-in-the wall restaurants where we feasted on $2 per person, ladies selling dumplings out of their homes, and the best duck in the world. To top it off, the Back Lakes area, where Beijing’s beautiful people (and tourists) congregate, has a restaurant specializing in the food of our ancestors, the Hakka people. I’m dreading my next visit to a Chinese restaurant in the US.

Beyond what we saw or ate, I’ll treasure spending time with Dad. I thought I would learn about him during this trip. Instead, depending on each other in an unfamiliar place away from all other family dynamics, I realized how alike we really are. ${QuickSuggestions} If you are going to be in Beijing for more than a couple of days, consider picking up a copy of the Insider’s Guide to Beijing. It is designed for expatriates, but has a lot of cool things for the traveler wanting to go beyond the main attractions. You can pick up a copy for about $8 at the Bookworm bookstore or the Foreign Languages Bookstore in Wangfujing.

Keep your receipts when you change money. While we never had a chance to change our money back, we were advised by our hotel (who would turn dollars into yuan but could not go the other way) that we would need the receipt to exchange yuan for dollars. If you still end up with a little surplus yuans, you may consider donating them to UNICEF’s Change for Good Program . To date, the program has raised over $31 million for needy children around the world. Mail leftover currency directly to:

U.S. Fund for UNICEF
ATTN: Change for Good Program
333 East 38th Street
New York, NY 10016

Make the most out of the jet lag. Your first day in Beijing is likely to start with a tentative, 4am "Are you awake?" to your travel partner. So just get out of bed and grab a cab to a 24-hour Cantonese Dim Sum place. You can then stroll while the city wakes up around you, or visit one of the many parks that open their grounds early. You’ll come across all sorts of people exercising, enjoying the day, or even singing in groups. And you’ll still be able to get to the major sights by opening. Just forget about beating the crowds. Asian tours are everywhere, and they get up at the crack of dawn. You’ll never have the place wholly to yourself.

Plan time for breaks. We actually went back to the hotel for a shower and a nap on most days. The summer humidity can turn even the most relaxed of itineraries into a death march. This is especially important if you are traveling with someone older. Remember that for them it might not be about bagging all the sights or walking 20 blocks to find Beijing’s greatest undiscovered treasure. It's about spending time with you.${BestWay} We didn’t have many problems with cabs. All of them used their meters. We were told that the newer cabs (identified by an orange stripe) are more reliable and not as likely to have fast meters. However, for short trips, it’s no big deal, as most bas rides around town will run you about $3. The only time we got taken for a ride was on the way back to the airport. In juggling the bags and everything, I failed to notice the hotel door woman had hailed a private car. We wound up paying twice as much ($16 vs. the normal $8). Every other time she hailed regular metered cabs.

Also, always have your hotel’s card for the cab driver to be able to get you back. You’ll be surprised at how many cabs won’t know where your "world-famous hotel" is. Just have a card (preferably with a map). While I am on the subject of cabs, plan your itinerary with your hotel’s concierge and ask him or her to write down directions for the cab driver. Get a card for each destination to avoid mistakes.

Crowne Plaza Beijing

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Seaotter71 on August 19, 2006

The best thing about the Crowne Plaza Beijing is its Wangfujing location in the heart of Beijing. The Wangfujing area has lots of shopping and serious nighttime street-food action, and is a 20-minute walk from the Forbidden City. Except during rush-hour traffic, most attractions are a short cab ride away. And at about $92 per night (after taxes), it is a pretty darn good deal.

The rooms are a bit small but comfortable. They were decorated in the currently popular dark wood brushed metal and glass look for a modern sleek look. The beds were comfortable, if very firm. The one afternoon we stayed in we got a visit to confirm that our room had been cleaned to our satisfaction.

The concierges are all proficient English speakers and very helpful in making recommendations, writing instructions for cab drivers, and making dinner reservations and arrangements for shows. We paid the same that we would have at the box office, and when there, we were met by someone employed by the hotel (not uniformed, so I was a bit leery at first) who arranged for us to get seated before everyone else in our seat type. “Michael” was especially helpful and friendly.

Unfortunately, the English proficiency did not extend to the front-desk staff. Upon check in, I could not get them to understand that I had already paid for the entire stay ahead of time through Orbitz, and they insisted I needed to pay for the first night and would settle up the remaining nights at check-out. After such a long flight, I decided to take it up with them at check-out or with American Express back home. While the person checking us out noticed the error before I had a chance to mention it, I have not seen the promised credit hit my card. I’ve taken the matter up with American Express. So no harm, no foul.

Other amenities included a business center where you can access the Internet ($0.33 per minute) and money exchange.

The spa is rather aggressive in recruiting customers. On our first night we pressed the wrong button and wound up with two masseuses helping us with our bags and leaving us at our room with their cards. I found a better deal half a block away.

Overall, a great value for the money, centrally located, and well appointed. Just double-check the bill. I would stay there again.
Crowne Plaza Beijing
Beijing, China

Ke Jia Cai

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Seaotter71 on August 19, 2006

Truth be told, Beijing was not my first choice. I had visions of a father and son visit to the village our Hakka ancestors settled in after migrating from Northern China.

Unfortunately, the village is a 4-hour drive from Guangdong and is not in any widely available map. If you don’t have someone from the village meeting you and driving you there, chances are you won’t find it. Hmmmm, maybe not on a short trip.

Fortunately for us, there is a Hakka restaurant in Beijing so popular it was written up in Frommers. Kei Jai Cai (also called Han Kejia in Frommers website) is charmingly rustic, and on the two times we went, its clients were decidedly local.

While we looked over the extensive menu (thankfully including pictures and English translations), we were served a small plate of dried beef with chilies and peanuts. Yummy, spicy, and thirst-inducing.

I let dad order, basking in the luck of our finding this place were he could get the foods he remembered as a child. Due to their late migration to the southern areas of China, the Hakkas were forced to settle in the sparsely populated hill country. As a result, fresh produce was at a premium, forcing the Hakkas to heavily utilize dried and preserved ingredients, such as various kinds of fermented tofu and much use of onion.

We started with a roast duck, expertly done. We also got a plate of Ngiong Tofu, tofu cubes stuffed with ground pork, fried, and served in gravy. This is the tofu I remember, not this healthy tofurky I’ve seen in LA. The serving also included variations on the dish where the pork was stuffed into eggplants and bitter melon.

The third dish was pork chitterlings on a bed of tofu. It tasted familiar, and the alternating layers of lean meat and fat made it quite tasty. It wasn’t until I had eaten copious amounts that my smiling father informed me I was eating pork-belly bacon (tripe). While this didn’t stop me from eating more, it did eradicate the trust built up over 35 years of calling this deceitful devil “Dad.”

Stuffed, but still willing to eat more in the name of culinary anthropology, I urged dad to get a fourth dish. He got a chicken dish, whose seasoning brought back memories of eating at my grandparent’s house. What was this long forgotten seasoning? Apparently my dad has ordered salt baked chicken. Salt, the forbidden condiment of households with sufferers of high blood pressure. Sigh…

We returned to Kei Jia Cai on our last night and feasted again. This time we had a very pork hot pot plate, and extraordinary tofu dish, Hakka vegetables (not sure how this reconciles with the earlier statement), and my favorite dish of garlic beef and green beans. Wow, it was like eating a beef-flavored cloud. Outstanding!

PS, cost for each of these meals: $20 for four dishes.
Ke Jia Cai (Kejia Cai)
Southeast Bank Of The Qian Hai
86 10 6404-2259

Li Kang

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Seaotter71 on September 12, 2006

The first time I had duck, I was about ten during a New Years banquet in Panama. We chowed on every type of delicacy, but it was the roast duck I remember.

Needless to say I was excited about having Beijing Roast Duck in Beijing proper. We couldn’t get reservations at the hundred-year-old Quan Ju De and were not in the mood to try to find a hidden kaoyas (roast duck restaurants) in a hutong. We were starving and decided to try Li Kang per our guidebook’s recommendation.

Li Kang is neither ostentatious nor hole-in-the-wall-like. Its atmosphere is as unremarkable as the beige walls. But the food is simply amazing. Like most of our restaurant outings I left the ordering up to dad, who decided to start us with a sweet and sour whitefish. The ink wasn’t dry on the waiter’s pad when a still trashing fish was presented for our approval.

No sooner had the fish left our table, a copper spout materialized to my right. The waiter, two feet behind the ridiculously long spout, pulled even further back and poured water fountain-like across the air into our cups of babao cha. This “eight treasure tea” includes dates, lotus seeds, longan, ginseng roots, lily, and chrysanthemum. It was mild, complex, delicious, and withstood many refills.

The while fish arrived filleted into little cubes of meat you could pick off the fish. This method increased the surface available to coat with the light batter. The sweet and sour sauce was mild so as to not overpower the mild and tender whitefish. Outstanding!

Of course, dad insisted on ordering a full duck to feed our army of two. Its preparation is a story in itself. The duck is first inflated Looney Tunes style. Air is blown between the skin and the meat to separate them. Boiling water is then used to scald the skin and make it drier and tauter. Molasses are then brushed on so the duck acquires a dark, rich color and a certain sweetness. After air-drying, the duck is hung and roasted in a hot oven for an hour or more, when the fat melts off and the skin becomes crispy.

Our duck was served the traditional way, skin still on served with steamed mu-shi flour pancakes, plum sauce, and vegetables (scallions and cucumbers) this meat eater was not about to waste valuable stomach space with. Succulent does not being to describe it. The skin was thin, light, crispy, sweet and airy. The meat dark, succulent, and had just enough fat to be juicy without overpowering to the palate. You honestly don’t need the sauce. And while I liked it with the paper-thin pancakes, I ate quite a bit duck by itself. Glorious.

We spent thirty or forty US dollars total, the most expensive meal of the trip, but it was worth every penny and still a deal compared to US prices! Good grief, my mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Li Kang
Gongti Nanlu
+86 10 6552 3818

Jin Ding Xuan

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Seaotter71 on September 12, 2006

I haven’t quite gotten over the fact that my first meal in Beijing was at a McDonalds. On our first day Dad and I were up at the crack of dawn thanks to Jetlag. So we went out foraging for food. Unfortunately, the early opening restaurant recommended by Fodor’s was nowhere to be found. Cue Mac Donald’s. Sigh… a Big breakfast definitely not in the plan.

Thankfully, our other book, the Insiders Guide to Beijing, led us to Jin Ding Xuan, a Cantonese chain that specializes in Dim Sum. The location we went to was a 24- hour golden four-story palace of Dim Sum. Did I mention the neon sign advertising the fact that it is open 24 hours? Just in case the fact that the entire place is painted a golden yellow is not enough. It doesn't feel like a chain in the same way US restaurants do. At least to the foreign eye.

We never made it past the first dining area, where high rosewood tables invite you to sit and indulge in a little bit of gluttony. While it doesn’t have the carts, you can order from the menu and waiters bring the food to you.

All the standards were there but better. We started out with delicious chuk (rice porridge with preserved duck eggs) that was so good it didn't need soy sauce. It was more sublty flavorful that rice porridge has any right to be. The Haggao (shrimp dumplings) were one and a half times as big as those in the US. The siu mai were topped with lobster. The Chinese brocoli was delightfully bitter and crisp. But best of all, the baos (pork buns) were delicious and missing that slight aftertaste I’ve come to accept elsewhere.

We spent well below $10 a person, even after you account for extreme gluttony. A deal so good for such great food we went there once more. If I had had my way we would have also gone before heading out to the airport. But that probably would not have gone over well with my overly-anxious-about-getting-to-the-airport father.

Overall a great restaurant with a wide variety of food, cheaply priced, and with hours agreeable to jet lagged tourists trying to make it to the sights at opening.
Jin Ding Xuan
77 Hepingli Xijie,
Beijing, China

Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Seaotter71 on September 7, 2006

I was dreading the over commercialization of the Great Wall at Badaling, but hesitant to tackle the difficult trek from Simatai to Jin Shan Ling with my 76 year old father. Thankfully, our tour guide suggested the much less visited, but easily accessible Juyongguan.

Located 32 miles northwest of Beijing on the way to Badaling, Juyongguan was reportedly used as early as the Qin Dynasty when the First Emperor started the Great Wall. Juyongguan guarded one of the two crucial passes to Beijing and thus gained historical significance as the site of many battles involving Jurchen, Mongol and, Japanese invaders. For more click here.

In the central portion of the pass you will find two towers and a dedication by Mao stating that only "great heroes reach the Great Wall." This is no exaggeration. The wall stretches to the left and right along the ridge of incredibly steep mountains for 2.5 miles of wall. The left side was almost empty due to the steeper initial ascent even though it flattens out eventually. We opted for the less steep and more popular right side in spite of its relentless upward climb. Dad made it as far as the first tower. He decided to stay with the guide while I continued to the top. While the crowds thinned out the higher I went; I was never truly alone. And I was okay with that. Even the shop halfway up was a reminder of what it was like to build the wall –gallons of bottled water and boxes of t-shirts are nothing compared to the thousands of bricks necessary to build it.

The present Pass was initially built in the Ming Dynasty and was extensively restored between 1993 and 1997. To be honest, the restoration, like most we saw is a little too perfect and new looking. It wasn’t until the end of the reconstruction at the top that with trembling legs and a little imagination you could see what might be the remains of the wall continuing impossibly into green mountains. The surrounding the valley area was considered during the Jin Dynasty (AD 1115-1234) as one of the Eight Sceneries of Beijing. While it is not what it once was, it’s a relief after the grayness of Beijing.

The wall is open between 7:30 and 5:30 PM. We paid our guide $140 US for his time, the cab, and admission (normally $5US). Unless you have special needs I suggest you skip the tour guide and just hire a cab for the day. I could have done without the "visit" to the jade and cloisonné factories. Plus, the nearby Ming Tombs that are part of most itineraries were just not that memorable.

Still, I am thankful our guide took us to Juyongguan. We got to experience the Great Wall without the circus-like atmosphere of Badaling or the imminent threat of killing my father. In fact, it was the highlight of the trip for both my Dad and I.
Great Wall (万里长城)
North Of Beijing City
Beijing, China
+86 (0)10 6912 1235


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