Category Archives: Weekend

Tianjin: My Favorite Weekend Retreat From Beijing

This may sound strange to long-term Beijingers, but when my wife and I want a relaxing overnight retreat from busy Beijing, we don’t head to the hills (although the Brickyard Hotel in Mutianyu is always my top choice). And no, it’s not the Beidaihe beaches, which stunningly still cannot offer one decent internationally-run hotel experience. No, my wife and I now like to drive south — to Tianjin, Beijing’s pretty but little noticed half-sister. For those of you who have never been there, Tianjin is a massively expanding city with multiple areas of European buildings from the opium war days. It’s a vibrant city; its growth is electric; some sections are quite charming; and its snaking riverfront with its new greenery and hotels is quickly starting to remind me of grand European city river walks — at least in potential. So here are my travel tips on Tianjin, a new edition to my website’s collection of daytrips and weekends.

Tip #1: Train or drive. I hear the express train is very easy and fast (less than half an hour!), and Beijing’s super-modern south station is also quite a site. Tianjin’s train station is right on the riverfront and everything is a taxi ride away. For those of you like myself who prefer to drive, my #1 tip is to only take the new highway, the Jingjin highway 京津高速, and at all costs avoid the old pot-holed 2-lane truck-infested nightmare of the original Jingjintang 京津塘高速 highway. It looks longer on the map, but trust me — it’s so uncrowded and fast you’ll actually enjoy a relaxing drive at a steady 120 kph and get there faster. The total toll should be around 55 RMB.

One small disclaimer; I don’t know how it’s possible but Tianjin drivers are far, far crazier than in Beijing, and their pedestrians are generally insane. So driving within the city can definitely be stressful. I suggest you park quickly at your hotel and walk around or let a taxi driver deal with it.

Tip #2: Lounge around in a nice hotel. We don’t often run around the touristy sites and malls as we far prefer to lounge around a nice hotel. I’ve stayed in a few of their high-end places and still can’t believe you can have a big room in a top international hotel in a top city for way under $200 — including breakfast for two! I currently have two favorite hotels. My favorite is the St Regis Hotel mostly because of its outstanding location, right along the Haihe river and literally a 15 minute lovely riverwalk distance to the Italian concession district. This area is definitely one of Tianjin’s tourist highlights, especially at night. I’m really happy to see this neglected area finally getting some serious investment, with Paulaner, Flo Brasserie, Starbucks and others now anchoring this very charming area.

The St Regis itself isn’t a perfect 5-star hotel, but their view of the river is definitely impressive (see the photo below from our room); the customer service was uniformly excellent; and the rooms certainly were a nice size. My wife and I had a very relaxing overnight here, mostly by enjoying their high tea, then having free drinks at their happy hour, then walking over to the Italian area for dinner — at a Thai restaurant, eating the best pad thai we’ve had since San Francsico! Go figure.

Tianjin Heping River and Italian District, Seen From St Regis Hotel
Tianjin Heping River and Italian District, Seen From St Regis Hotel

My other favorite hotel is the Tianjin Center Hotel, placed atop a skyscraper in the thick of Tianjin on Nanjing Lu, just across the street from their always-packed pedestrian shopping alley (as well as the famous Catholic church). This hotel used to be excellent, initially run by the Raffles group, but now with local ownership the service has slipped a bit. But the best feature, by far, are their standard rooms — at 60 square meters the largest I’ve seen in any hotel anywhere. The designs are very efficient and there’s usually a big tub which has spectacular views 50 stories above the city. They also have a nice Executive level lounge, otherwise you can hang out in your room all day!

Other Tips: As I mentioned, Tianjin’s concession areas, including the Italian section, are all quite charming to stroll or drive through. Their grand street with the Astor Hotel continues its restoration and in a couple more years will be really stunning, comparable to Shanghai’s Bund. For Chinese culture, their reconstructed Ancient Cultural Street is admittedly touristy but far more successfully “authentic” and lively compared to the soul-sucking lifelessness of Beijing’s Qianmen Street. There’s also a genuine temple halfway up the street to take a quiet rest.

Things To Avoid: There’s a “food court” which is passably fun, and I’m sure your tourist guide will force you to eat Tianjin’s famous steamed buns 包子 at Goubuli 狗不理. Apparently, their food is blessed forever since an emperor or Cixi or George Washington once said they were delicious. All I can say is for their price for one, I can get a dozen better tasting 包子 at a dozen restaurants in Beijing. I’d rather eat at Kiesslings, a much more fun landmark restaurant.

Enjoy your trip, and please share your experiences with other readers! Don’t forget to check out other travel suggestions at my website’s collection of daytrips and weekends.

Spring Has Sprung (Finally): My Favorite Beijing Road Trips

I can’t say that I will miss this miserably long winter, and I’m chomping at the bit to head to the hills for a lovely weekend drive. So in spirit of our newly arrived warmer weather, I’d like to unearth a deeply hidden blog section and discuss my favorite Beijing daytrips. Two years ago I wrote about my favorite relaxing drives in Beijing, and here is one highlight from that popular post which is especially relevant right now, as the Pinggu peach fields will be exploding with color in a few weeks:

Drive #3: East along the Jingping Highway to marshlands, peach fields and mountains

wetlandsEveryone knows the airport expressway that goes to the new terminal 3; if you keep going straight on that road instead of taking the terminal exit, you are now on the lovely, quiet Jingping highway (京平高速). This lovely road breezes past field and then enters hills as it wraps east and then south towards Tianjin. Just past 6th ring is an exit for muyanlu (木燕路); take this northward about 10km to a huge sign on the left for the wetlands of Hanshiqiao(汉石桥水库). This place has a very nice, large wetlands area which you can explore in a rented boat. You can also rent bikes along the paths and go quite far in back along lovely tree-lined streets along the canal. Plus, their on-site restaurant is surprisingly excellent as well as clean. It’s a very nice daytrip.

If you kept going east along Jingping, you could take an exit into Pinggu city; the entire area around the city is filled with orchards, mostly peaches, and it can be a lovely drive during spring’s blossoms. If you continue along Jingping through the hills and a couple tunnels, you’d pass the lovely Panshan mountain on your left side, one of my favorite mountains. Take the gondola all the way to the top and slowly hike your way down.

Also further up the road is the Hyatt Regency Jing Jin City Resort, a bizarrely huge and ornate hotel in the middle of fields. It’s also a very relaxing, quiet place to spend a weekend, and it’s only 80km from the city.

I’ve blogged about a host of fun Beijing road trips which you can read here:

Within 1-2 Hours Drive:
Yunju Temple & Shidu
Jiufeng National Forest

Within 2-4 Hours Drive:
Baicaopan Mountain & Meadow
Beidaihe & Qinhuangdao
Wulingshan

Within 2-3 Hours Flight:
Dalian
Qingdao

 

 

Get Into The Chunjie Spirit At Nongzhanguan

This is a quick message to all; a couple months ago I wrote about one of my favorite local spots, the Agricultural Exhibition Center (NóngZhǎnGuǎn) just off east third ring at the eastern end of Dongzhimen Wai Dajie. Right now they have their annual Chinese New Years exhibition, and it’s a great way to kill a couple hours this weekend (or up until the 27th). This almost-free (3RMB) exhibition is held in an enormous room in the back, and there are hundreds of vendors selling everything from foods; clothes; tea; new years decorations, and housewares. You’ll find it irresistible to sample the many foods. Visiting this place (Nong Zhan Guan) is always a terrific way to get absorbed into the local laobaixing scene. If it’s nice out, don’t forget to walk around the pretty grounds behind the building.

Escape From Dàhán At A Beijing Hot Spring

Today, January 20th, is dàhán (大寒), “big cold” on the Chinese solar calendar. This is traditionally considered the coldest day of the year, and I won’t argue with that — it’s darn cold. So, on these deep winter days, I thought I’d share with my readers my favorite relief: a trip to a local hot springs. Last year I raved about the Longxi hot springs, but this year I’ve already experienced three others (at over 33% off, thanks to tuangou!), and Longxi is now only #3 on my list. Here’s my update…

Spa #1: Shunjing. The closest spa to Beijing is definitely Shunjing spa (shùnjǐng wēnquán 顺景温泉, www.shunjingwenquan.com, 5827.1888), as it is literally across the highway from Ikea on east 4th ring. Shunjing claims to be the world’s biggest spa, and indeed the place is huge. More importantly, it’s very plush, clean and relaxing. Spread out underneath a series of skylights, the indoor section has quite a few different types of soaking baths, at different temperatures. There are many corners here, and even a fake cave section in back that kids would love. The outdoor spas are a bit small, especially compared to Fengshan spa — but it’s too cold anyway right now.

The food buffet is our favorite of the 4 spas we’ve seen, and at 60RMB extra is a pretty good deal.

All the good spas have important extras like a relaxation room and heated floor mats. Shunjing’s relaxation room is excellent, with dozens of reclining chairs where you can lazily nap for a couple hours. However, it did not have the heated floor mats, which are a big plus at Fengshan and Longxi.

Another good thing about Shunjing is that it is relatively cheap, at ~198RMB for normal price; we only paid 130 per person from tuangou.

Spa #2: Fengshan Hot Springs Resort. I think Fengshan hot springs resort is still my favorite, overall. Fengshan (凤山温泉度假; 6071-1188; www.fsdj.com.cn) is a solid hour north of Beijing, just at the foothills of the Ming Tombs off Badaling highway. Fengshan has two enourmous enclosed sections with dozens of soaking spas — and many of them are fun, including water jets and tropical rain showers. Also, their outdoor saunas are definitely the best of the four, with multiple levels and a lovely view of the mountains in the background.

I was also a big fan of their heated floor section; we fell asleep on them while getting a foot massage and having our faces covered in cucumber slices. Upstairs, they have a large relaxation room and a nice cafeteria with basic foods.

I think their usual price is in the high 200’s, but again we got our tickets first on a tuangou website for at least 40% off.

Spa #3: Jiuhua Hot Springs Resort. Jiuhua, less than an hour away straight north, is an older resort — and it shows. We got a tuangou ticket here for about 98RMB but we would not plan to go back. The indoor section is relatively small, in a dark basement with no skylights. Their outdoor section was larger but not well designed, especially when compared to the next-generation spas nearby.

Revisiting Longxi Hot Springs Resort: Longxi is still a very nice place to relax, as they have a great collection of spas under a large sunroof. Also, their swimming pool by far is the largest I saw. And they have an excellent heated floor section where you can nap. Also, they have unique items like the Turkish flesh-eating fish and a salt scrub area. But their lunch area is smallish and I don’t remember any relaxation room.

My Bottom Line

  • Best overall: Fengshan > Shunjing/Longxi >> Jiuhua
  • Best food: Shunjing >Fengshan > Longxi/Jiuhua
  • Best Indoor Area: Fengshan > Shunjing/Longxi>> Jiuhua
  • Best Outdoor Area: Fengshan >> Longxi > Shunjing > Jiuhua
  • Best Relation Rooms/Heated Floors: Fengshan > Shunjing/Longxi > Jiuhua
  • Best For Weekend Overnight: Fengshan > Longxi
  • Best Normal Price: Shunjing; BUT always check first on a tuangou website! You will save at least 1/3 off regular price. Don’t know about tuangou yet? Please read my tuangou article for the details

Traveling? Don't Forget Malaria Pills

We are in the middle of the summer travel season, and many expats are travelling to southern and tropical countries near China. Many of those areas have mosquitoes that can transmit malaria, a nasty parasite that can make people very sick. Malaria still kills about 1 million people a year worldwide — 85% of whom are children under 5. Taking certain medicines as prevention can dramatically reduce your risks of getting this very common tropical disease. The big problem is resistance to medicines, which varies by country — which is why travelers need to check out the CDC travel website, read their FAQ on their travelling country and find out which medicines (and vaccines) they need. You can also take a quick look at the malaria map below for Asia, which is updated at another CDC malaria website:

Malaria Map Asia 2010
Malaria Map Asia 2010

Which Medicine To Take?

Each malaria medicine has its pros and cons, especially with side effects and cost. There’s a recent literature review by the Cochrane Collaboration, the leading group on evidence-based reviews, which showed that some medicines, especially mefloquine, may not be as safe as others. Here’s their nice summary:

…Atovaquone-proguanil and doxycycline are the best tolerated regimens. Mefloquine has more adverse effects than other drugs, and these adverse effects are sometimes serious. However mefloquine may still be an appropriate choice for those travellers who have taken it previously, without any adverse events. Other factors should be considered by prescribers, in addition to tolerability: cost, ease of administration, possible drug-drug interactions, travel itinerary, and the additional protection that may be afforded by doxycycline against other infections, besides malaria.

My favorite malaria prevention medicine for patients is doxycycline, and I’m glad this latest review reinforces its safety profile over the others. It also is usually cheaper — although it must be taken daily, and for 28 days after return from vacation.

Don’t Forget To Do Some Research First

As I’ve mentioned before, travelers should first check a travel website like the US CDC Travel page, and read their country’s description for the latest recommendations on vaccines, medicines, disease outbreaks and security issues. It can provide you a lot of peace of mind.

Other pearls:

  • Don’t forget your mosquito spray! This is crucial, especially for children. Mosquitos spread a lot more diseases than just malaria.
  • Do your research at least a month earlier, as you may need special vaccines such as japanese encephalitis, rabies, or yellow fever
  • Don’t forget your travel kit, which should have medicines for diarrhea, fevers, allergies, skin rashes, etc…