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.

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