Sunday, February 26, 2012

Where I went

Once in a while, interesting experiences come close enough for us to grab and thus was the case when I got to go to Hong Kong and China in conjunction with work.  It was a trip like those that don't happen any longer because everything was deluxe and all meals were included.

There are people in this world who have spent their lives building relationships and using their imaginations in places they have embraced like home.  They have forged relationships so strong and have taught others how to continue doing it and maybe they can even expand on it.  Pacific World, based in Shanghai but with offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, and many other large cities in Asia, can make not just make things happen, they can make it seem like magic has been performed.  Pacific World being able to make things be done is how our group was allowed to enter the Great Hall of the People across from Tianamen Square in Beijing.  The only way to get into this particular building -- built in 10 months in 1958 along with ten other Beijing government buildings for the tenth anniversary of the founding of the country -- is with a police escort, which we had.  (The only other time I experienced a police escort was when I was in the CTA Blue Line fire and they ran the last group needing medical attention on a bus operating as an ambulance and we had a police escort at the front and the back of the bus.)

I was there.
The Great Hall of the People is for special events and meetings of high-ranking government officials but it can be rented out for large corporate events.  Imagine the grand staircase lined with schoolchildren holding bouquets of flowers or flags.  Imagine the grand ballroom, which can hold a few thousand people, adorned with your corporate logo.  Everything about the venue is deluxe with amazing views of Beijing:  Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City, distant Beihai Park with it's 40-meter-high white pagoda call the Bai Ta.

Step over the threshold to keep ghosts out
The police continued with us as we were escorted into a side entrance of the Forbidden City.  The are many gates and courtyards before one can get into the Forbidden City but Pacific World arranged for us to avoid all the outer gates and get right to the main entrance.  Again, magic!  The Forbidden City is wicked huge and our guide hit on all the most important features but first Pacific World arranged for a group picture in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony.  Magic!  As we departed, our tour bus didn't keep us waiting very long (magic considering the traffic) and met us at the northern gate of the Forbidden City, across from Jingshan Park with its manmade hill made during the Ming Dynasty from the dirt dug out for the Forbidden City moats.  (The hill is over 45 meters high but when you go to the top of the hill, you still can't get all of the Forbidden City in the picture because it is simply too big for a normal lense.  I suggest fisheye.   Seriously.)

Badaling (badaboom)
We visited two places on the Great Wall the next day, but where we did our walking on the wall was at Badaling, our second stop.  The Great Wall was erected for the purpose of keeping out an army and their horses.  Invaders, of course, could get over it, but without their horses, they weren't going to be doing much of anything.  There is no sort of conveyance to get to anywhere on the wall; one has to rely on the power of legs and I got a lot farther than I thought I might.  The side I chose, with fewer travelers for better photos, was the more vertical of the two and I got farther than I thought I would, which was to the second tower.  I didn't cough up lung, I didn't faint, I didn't feel like I would die, but I honestly could not stinking believe I was doing this and it wasn't killing me.  Full disclosure:  I couldn't have gone past this point without taking the rest of the day and missing the bus.  I have now walked the Great Wall and, per Mao Tse Tung, "Until you have walked the Great Wall, you can't be a hero."  Hand me that medal, because I guess I am.  Me and the several hundred others who turned out that day.

As we headed for our bus, what vehicle should I see but a Buick Regal with Chinese plates.  GM could really get some mileage with a picture like that.

Our first Great Wall stop was at what I think was North Gate, a much smaller gate than Badaling but with easier accessibility to Beijing.  Pacific World can put together a fantastic dinner right inside the gate with incredible lighting and your corporate banner hanging above.  It's probably a drive of at least 45 minutes from Beijing, but being there for something like that would impress anyone.

Inside Beijing is a restaurant called Mansion Bai.  It was a fortified home in the typical Chinese style of various buildings around a central garden that's been converted into a restaurant.  All the young, lovely, educated women who work there wear authentic clothing (the soles are crazy miniballs of leather).  Had it not been for the amazing connections of Pacific World, we wouldn't know this existed.  It happened time and again, including Lan Center, an ultramodern restaurant with excellent traditional food. 

Our other hosts were Cathay Pacific Airlines, with kind and accommodating flight attendants and lie-flat beds in First and Business classes and where economy travel is, well, economy but they are very pleasant; and Shangri-La hotels, with its deluxe rooms, great amenities, and gracious service.  What I experienced was so lovely that I am pretty much spoiled for the rest of my life.   Example:  Shangri-La changes their elevator carpets every day to reflect the day of the week so their jet-lagged guests know what day it is.  Example:  Wake-up calls are given by people who ask "shall I call back in ten minutes?" and then they do.

CCTV Tower, Beijing, my obsession
I had visited Beijing before, and Hong Kong, where we stopped in each direction for a few days.  Beijing can now be categorized as a totally cosmopolitan city with freeways and high-end boutiques and restaurants to go with its expanding presence of modern architecture.  Cars have replaced bicycles.  Hong Kong is as cosmopolitan as before but, if possible, it seemed even wealthier, with land reclaimed from the harbor to allow for more highways and more buildings.  Tourists crush into both places but there seemed to be fewer Westerners in the crush.

So what have I learned?  That there are many more people in the world than there were when I last visited Hong Kong in 1996 and Beijing at the end of 2003, respectively, and people are becoming more sophisticated in their tastes and desires.  That knowing how to speak a little of another language -- be it French, Spanish, or Mandarin -- is never a bad thing.  That I would love to put together a group trip and use Pacific World for the ground (great connections and knowledgeable guides who speak perfect English) and have the guests stay at Shangri-La properties (a choice of many and they are lovely and luxurious) and fly over on Cathay Pacific (biz or first, natch).  That I could seriously put together something no one would ever forget.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Taking a trip and NOT to a Hall of Fame

Let's talk about that Super Bowl game of last week and get it out of the way.  Madonna was terrific.  I am not a fan of the old thing but she really put on an amazing show.   As fare as M.I.A. giving everyone the finger and dropping the "S" bomb, that person is known to be a classless lowlife.  The final play of the game where the Pats let the Giants score so they could have a 100-yard touchdown in the remaining seconds of play?  Bill B, big time coach-a-go-go, did this kind of thing a few years ago.  Had he succeeded, he'd have been the hero of the football universe.  This time, like that one, he didn't succeed and Tom Brady, husband of supermodel Giselle Bundchen (who dropped the "F" bomb when assaulted by sportswriters asking what happened), didn't get his fourth Super Bowl ring.  (For those who said, "Hey, she was going to watch that "Downton Abbey," wasn't she?  I did watch it and was able to switch back in time to see the Pats lose.)

Eli Manning and the Giants cook the Pats' clam chowder, 21-17.

Hooray for me, I am going on a trip on Thursday and will report all about it -- or about the interesting parts anyway -- in two weeks.  I will be away for an entire week, longer than I've been away in a very long time. 

Until then, stay groovy, y'all.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Giants vs. Pats vs. Crawleys

Super Bowl XLVI is today!  The biggest sporting event in the world!  Millions and millions and millions will be watching.  Want to get into a restaurant that's normally overrun?  Go!  Super Bowl empties it out!  Like going to a quiet, uncrowded movie theatre?  Go!  Super Bowl keeps it clear!

Here is who watches the Super Bowl:  fans of American professional football, fans of the Patriots or fans of the Giants, fans of sporting events, fans of events, fans of celebrities that perform pre-game and halftime shows (ancienne extraordinaire Madonna will be leaving the nursing home to show her muscle-chart body and shake something that could just snap off; will Kelly Clarkson remember the words to our national anthem or eff it up like Christina Aguilera did last year?), fans of television advertisements, fans of Tom Brady getting crushed like a bug, fans of Peyton Manning (whose brother is QB for the Giants so they are, therefore, fans of the Giants since the Colts aren't in it), fans of guys who just can't stop talking, fans of spectacle, and people who just can't help themselves.  I am a fan of American professional football, television advertisements, and Tom Brady getting his comeuppance.  I am also a fan of "Downton Abbey."

"Downton Abbey" is a period mini-series based in England, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic through, so far, World War I.  It tells the story of Robert and Cora Crawley, Earl and Countess of Grantham and their three daughters, trying to find a suitable match for the eldest daughter, Mary, and getting the heir, a third cousin lawyer named Matthew Crawley, settled into his future as the future Earl of Grantham.  Cora Crawley is an American heiress, one of the American daughters of obscene wealth who turned over their inherited fortunes to marry into British aristocracy.  In the case of Cora and Robert, great love and passion was the result and they have remained into love.  Robert has tended to Downton and Cora's fortune, and their estate and family have continued to thrive.  Since they have three daughters, English laws at the time mean the title, the lands, the house, everything including Cora's family cash, will fall to the next male in line, in this case the son of Robert's first cousin.

When the series opens, the first cousin and his son, whom Robert loved as his own, have both been lost in the sinking of the Titanic.  Mary had quietly promised to marry him, a marriage that would allow her to always stay in Downton Abbey.  Imagine the turmoil.  Not nutjobs-at-my-workplace turmoil but turmoil nevertheless.  The new heir, Matthew Crawley, is found and he is smart, handsome, charming, and kind.  Is there love for Mary and Matthew?

There are personable servants and the usual conniving and sweetness.  Will Mr. Bates and Anna ever find happiness?  What is up with the constant back-stabbing by lady's maid O'Brien?  She says she is not like that but then, oh she is.

Part two is now in the middle of WWI.  Footman William has died (trying to save Matthew who may never walk again), insisting Daisy marry him before he dies so she can have William's widow's benefits.  Matthew has sent away his fiancee, Lavinia, because he doesn't want her to waste her life on a cripple who can't have children.   Mary is engaged to Sir Richard, a newspaper mogul who is quite the determined and shifty SOB.  (Mary's downfall:  she loves men who are well connected with lots of cash, like herself.)  Of course the war is still on (15 million dead and 20 million injured at the end) and what came after still looms -- the Spanish Flu (between 50 to 100 million dead worldwide within 18 months, with 500 million infected).

SNL did their best to make us love it even more:

(Above courtesy of NBC and You Tube.)

So yes, I will watch all the pre-game stuff and I will watch the game -- go Giants!! GIANTS! -- but when it's 8pm, I'll switch to PBS and root for myself because football is nice and all, but love, social interaction, intrigue, impossibly cool period costumes, and ancenstral mansions make me very happy indeed. When the show is over, I will turn it back to the game.  If the game's still going on, good enough.  If the new season of "The Voice" has started, even better.  That Adam Levine is smart, talented, and fine.  There is nothing wrong with fine.