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China Whirl

Five days to see Hong Kong and Beijing? For the right price, this couple gave it a try.

By Jerry Haines
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 21, 2000; Page E01

First, to all of those that we slighted: We really were having a wonderful time; we really did wish you were there. But one casualty of trying to "do" both Hong Kong and Beijing in one week is that you don't have time for all the usual vacation things. Like writing postcards.

When we found the special off-season trip to Asia on the Internet, we wondered whether, since it takes a full 24 hours to get there, it would be worth it. But the Northwest Airlines World Vacations package deal--$2,300 for both of us, including air fare, hotels, transfers and tours--was so cheap . . .

Deducting the time spent in transit, however, we would have only about 2 1/2 days in each city--cities that are well-known for their multiplicity of don't-miss attractions. We would have to schedule carefully, embrace each offered cultural experience and hit the ground running. Except that it's hard to hit the ground running when your legs have spent 20 hours in economy-class seating, and your body clock is so jet-lagged that it is set to none of the time zones of this planet.

Our entrance to Hong Kong was eased by Yuka, the tour guide who met us at the slick new airport and took us to Kowloon via an impressive late-evening drive overlooking floodlit container ships and behemoth cranes and crossing Hong Kong's giant new suspension bridge. We were relieved to discover that, notwithstanding the low price of the package, our hotel was comfortable, clean and aggressively modern--our room's night stand held a tiny clock-console that controlled all of the lights, the radio and the air conditioning.

At midnight Hong Kong time, our stomachs announced that it was noon and that they were hungry. Aha, a cultural opportunity to embrace: Across the street, the Man Chu hot-pot restaurant was still open. At its tables, steam rose in plumes. Other patrons dipped fish heads, chicken livers or cow innards into the bubbling broth of their hot pots, but we created our own training version with shrimp, spinach, noodles and beef. It was tricky, messy and absolutely delicious. We became the entertainment for the wait staff as we saturated the tablecloth and acted like those kids that other kids' moms used to dread having at their houses.

The next morning Yuka picked us up for the half-day tour that came with the package. It was foggy, cool (even for February) and drizzly. Bad weather had been one of our concerns. If it rains one day during a two-week vacation, fine. You can stay in your hotel watching CNN International and eating room service dim sum. But a full day of rain when you have only a total of two days in the city wipes out half your touring opportunities. You need to have foul-weather alternatives ready--a museum or covered market, for example.

Clouds hid Victoria Peak as we passed from Kowloon on the mainland to the island of Hong Kong. We stopped first at Stanley Market for a shopping opportunity. (There would be several of these, and I began to suspect that perhaps this was why the tour was so cheap and that soon we would be asked to watch a video presentation for the Condominiums of Heavenly Harmony.) Yuka next took us to Aberdeen Harbor, the famous floating city of sampans. It is slowly disappearing, she said, because the harbor is being progressively filled in to permit construction of more and more high-rise apartment buildings and because mandatory education requirements have demonstrated to the youth of the harbor city that there is a better life to be had on the shore. Then, after resisting the opportunity to buy jade necklaces at a shop-op jewelry factory, we motored to Victoria Peak. But the fog persisted and we saw only occasional outlines of the office towers and mansions below.

Back in Kowloon, our tour complete, I needed a nap. "Just 20 minutes," I pleaded, and, after satisfying my minimum daily adult requirement for cholesterol for the month at the Yuen Yuen Roasted Meat Restaurant, we returned to the hotel. Five hours later we awoke to find that the sun had set, many stores had closed and the chance for afternoon sightseeing was gone.

Betrayed by our own bodies! But, you know, it worked out. Because we had been recharged, we were able to sample some of Kowloon's nightlife. We went to the historic Peninsula Hotel and to Felix, its decidedly nonhistoric, top floor bar that has one of the most dramatic views available. It's such a cool place, too, with translucent floors, techno-pop music, $10 beers and an elevator whose lights dim as it approaches the top floor to match the mood in the bar. The fog had blown out to sea while we were asleep and we could see clearly the fashionably tailored office towers across the water on the island.

Even with our unintended nap, we had gotten a lot done. We congratulated ourselves over a fashionably late supper of mango crepes and hot papaya soup.

In contrast, we began our second and last full day in Hong Kong with a breakfast of hot Spam sandwiches at the appropriately named Wui Fat cafe. Then we boarded the Star Ferry (itself a tourist attraction--another check mark on the list) on our way to see a major temple. Once on the island, however, we could not find the subway stop for the temple on the map. A passerby explained the difficulty: The temple was back on Kowloon. Oops. That's another problem with compressed travel, you can't afford the time to get lost. But Victoria Peak was clearly visible, so we took a tram to the top for another look. This time we could see: the city below, Kowloon across the harbor and even into the New Territories. Well, enough of that--back to the checklist.

Your accelerated traveler spends a lot of time learning skills that he will use only once--for example, navigating the subway. But Hong Kong's subway system is very consumer-friendly, so that particular learning curve wasn't very steep. (Memo to Metro officials: Take a look at Hong Kong's fare card machines, which dispense tickets based on your selections from a touch-screen map, and at the illuminated system charts above each door of the cars that show precisely where you are and your direction of travel.) Returning to Kowloon, we did find the temple and there mingled with people bearing offerings of oranges and red Delicious apples and watched them as they ceremoniously lighted smoky incense sticks. We worked our way out among phrenologists, palm readers, card readers and other fortunetellers, each in his or her own little stall, as they counseled their respective clienteles.

Our final stop was the bird garden. Patrons--mostly men--come to the block-long market to choose from pastel parakeets, smart-alecky mynas and sweetly warbling canaries. We watched the men take their birds for test drives--hanging the cages in the adjacent courtyard, waiting for their new pets to sing and chirping themselves if necessary to help the birds overcome opening night jitters. The men had that kind of candid enthusiasm that American men are discouraged from showing, except for cars, football and power tools.

We were already at the mid-point of our vacation, and it was time to leave Hong Kong. We were just getting used to converting money from Hong Kong dollars when suddenly we had to forget that and start computing from the Chinese yuan. We were just learning to say good morning in Cantonese--josahn--when we had to replace it with the Mandarin ni hao.

Most of the next day was given to logistics. Notwithstanding Hong Kong's new status as part of the People's Republic of China, flights to the mainland still are considered international travel and, accordingly, we had to be at the airport two hours early for our three-hour flight to Beijing. Thus, what with transfers and hotel check-outs and -ins, we did little touring that day.

We did, however, meet Lilly (or, more accurately, Li-Li). She was our guide in Beijing and our first, and very pleasant, contact with its people. She met us at the airport, which is even newer than Hong Kong's, and took us to our Beijing hotel. Again, the accommodations were not what you would expect in a low-budget package. The Jinglun, government-owned but operated by a Japanese company, compares favorably to a Marriott.

The touring started the next day, right after breakfast. Or breakfasts. There was a full, American-style breakfast buffet, which we augmented with a more traditional Chinese breakfast of congee (rice gruel) and dim sum dumplings. We walked off both breakfasts quickly, though, because Lilly took us to Tiananmen Square, in through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, down the length of the Forbidden City and out through the Divine Military Genius Gate.

Over lunch, we decided that Lilly had been such a good companion that we signed on with her for an afternoon tour of an old hutong (alleyway) neighborhood and an evening at the Beijing Opera. We toured the hutong by pedicab, steered by a young man who was not only its driver but its engine. It was obvious that one of the reasons for the cheap package price was that it was the off-season. As in "cold." The trees and gardens were leafless and brown, ice covered the lakes and streams, and the decorative carp from the empty fish ponds apparently were wintering indoors. There was that sweet sulphur smell of coal fires. Our pedicabbie offered us a lap robe.

The hutong tour allows a view of how some of the middle class of Beijing live. The ones who have not relocated to high-rise apartment houses remain in clusters of one-story courtyard homes along hutongs near the Forbidden City. We were taken to see the inside of one such home, which, although cramped and Spartan, seemed clean and comfortable.

How representative was that picture? Were we unwitting dupes who allowed ourselves to be charmed out of our skepticism? While I do suspect that the organizers of the tour had been selective in deciding which parts of the neighborhood we would see, it was at least a candid demonstration that life along the hutongs is considerably different from a stay at the Jinglun. I had expected Beijing to be gray and grim, and, true, it was neither; yet compared with the crowded courtyards of the hutongs, our hotel was unspeakably luxurious.

The hutong tour was preceded by a vigorous climb to the top of a nearby drum tower (once used to signal the time of the day), and followed by a tour around the grounds of an imperial uncle's palace. The day of touring wore us out, and I started nodding off at the opera. This takes some doing, for most of the dialogue is shrieked and is accompanied by frantic percussion and atonal melodies. English supertitles were thoughtfully provided, but even so, I had trouble following the plot of "The Goddess of Heaven Scatters Flower Petals." At one point I awoke to read a vanquished villain announce on the supertitle, "My eyes are unsmoothly and dizzy now." Uh-huh, I thought, I'm with you, pal.

Our final full day in China featured a trip to the Great Wall at Badaling. And there we discovered that one of the biggest downsides of off-season travel to China is that the tramway to the top of the wall was shut down in the winter weather. The Great Wall actually might more accurately be called the Great Staircase, with thousands of steps. So we had to climb. Oh well, we could think of all the money we had saved. Of course, we'd have to spend some of it on liniment.

A disadvantage of our schedule was that, except for the Great Wall tour, we were limited to the cities and saw nothing of the country life, where we might have gotten a better feel for what it's like to live in China. To some degree, a city is a city. We also found that, even in the cities, we had no time to locate the many restaurants and other high points that friends had recommended. Nor were we able to telephone local friends of friends, who might have given us their first-hand observations.

But the really excruciating problem with accelerated travel is that you can't lecture your friends about Chinese politics and society once you get home. It's hard to cast yourself as an old China hand based on a Sunday and Monday in Beijing. Nevertheless, I have a pontification learner's permit that entitles me to the following comparison: At the end of our Beijing hutong tour, our pedicab driver did not thank us, but, rather, seemed puzzled when I tendered a tip.

That was never a problem in Hong Kong. Indeed, there had been a major crowd control problem in Hong Kong when thousands of people swarmed to buy into an initial public offering for a new dot-com company. But while the ordinary people of Hong Kong are savvy about IPOs, in Beijing, we sensed, money is vaguely insulting. But they must be getting used to it--we had more included shop ops in Beijing than in Hong Kong.

Otherwise, the only thing I'm qualified to lecture about is whether you really can do China in a week. The answer is that you can if you're flexible, if you're lucky, if you're organized, and if you think of it more as a scouting trip for future vacations than as your last chance to see all of the things on an impossibly long "must-do" list. And if you keep telling yourself, "We'll have plenty of time to rest on the flight home."

I suppose we could have written postcards during the flight home, too, but I didn't think postcards from Beijing should arrive with a Detroit postmark. So please consider this to be the postcard we owe you: We are having a wonderful time; we wish you were here; we would write more, but our eyes are unsmoothly and dizzy now.

Jerry Haines last wrote for the Travel section about his collection of jacket patches from foreign cities.

DETAILS: China on the Cheap

Our budget trip to China, purchased from Northwest Airlines World Vacations (see below), cost $2,300 (for two persons) and covered air fare from Dulles International Airport (via Detroit and Tokyo) to Hong Kong, the flight on Air China to Beijing, and the flight home; accommodations in Hong Kong and Beijing; breakfasts in Beijing; and airport transfers. We also got several free tours--a half-day in Hong Kong and 1 1/2 days in Beijing. (Tours in Beijing included lunch.)

Additional expenses included $60 for visas (see below) and about $200 for meals. Additional touring in Beijing totaled $138. There also were modest departure taxes assessed at both airports.

Packages like ours typically are least expensive in January and February; World Vacations suggests checking for winter 2001 packages beginning this fall. Currently, it is offering Shanghai packages that include air fare, three nights at the Sofitel Hyland, breakfast, transfers and a half-day tour, starting at $979 per person double occupancy. Details: www.nwaworldvacations.com, 800-800-1504.

Other budget tours:

* China Focus (www.chinafocustravel.com, 888-688-1898) offers a 12-day Historic China Tour of six Chinese cities and ancient towns (including Shanghai and Beijing) beginning at $1,199 through October. Trans-Pacific travel is on Air China from San Francisco. Price includes "first-class hotel," which China Focus describes as equivalent to three- or four-star accommodations.

* GAT China Vacation (www.china-vacation.com, 800-868-6686) offers an eight-day Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong tour also at $1,199. Price includes deluxe hotels and air fare from San Francisco or Los Angeles. Trans-Pacific travel is on China Eastern Airlines and China Airlines.

* Cathay Pacific (www.cathay-usa.com, 800-233-2742) has an air fare-only deal: a 30-day All Asia Pass that allows travel to and among 16 Asian cities starting at $999 from New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, through Dec. 6. (The price is $200 higher May 15 through Aug. 15.)

VISAS: You don't need a visa for Hong Kong unless you're staying for more than three months, but you will need one for mainland China. The Chinese Embassy suggests obtaining the visa no later than 30 days before departure. Fee is $30 for a visa that is good for three months. Allow five days for processing. (You will have to leave your passports at the office, something you should keep in mind if you are planning to travel somewhere else meanwhile.) Expedited processing is possible for an additional fee. Details: Embassy of China, 202-338-6688, www.china-embassy.org/visa/visa.htm.

INFORMATION: Check out www.soon.org.uk/country /china.htm for links to many Web sites on China.

--Jerry Haines


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