This is an installment in my series on my January 2012 trip to China. Posts include: Help Me Plan My Trip To China, Flight Review: American Airlines 777 International Business Class to Beijing, Hotel Review: St. Regis Beijing, Beijing Overview: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Peking Deck, A Great Day at the Great Wall of China, Flight Review: Air China 777 Domestic Business Class, Hotel Review: Andaz Shanghai, Trip Report: Terra Cotta Warriors and a Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, Hotel Review: Sheraton Xian, My China Trip Wrap Up: China Eastern, Hainan Airlines and the Westin Beijing.
By the time I hit Xian to see the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, my trip to China was drawing to a close. I spent two nights at the Sheraton Xian before hopping a Hainan Airlines flight back to Beijing for one final night at the Westin there.
Before I get to that, though, just a quick note about the flight that took me from Shanghai to Xian. As I mentioned before, based on the recommendations of several TPG readers I used CTrip.com to book my intra-China flights. The first was my flight on Air China from Beijing to Shanghai. The other two were flights from Shanghai to Xian on China Eastern, and Xian to Beijing on Hainan Airlines.
I was a little hesitant to fly China Eastern since I haven’t heard great things, but I actually had a pretty good flight on them. I flew business class because I scored a low fare on C Trip. Yes, the plane was a bit old, the business class seat I got looked like it came from the mid-90’s, and the food was only so-so, but the service was really good and the flight attendants were very welcoming. Did it blow me away? No, but nor did it disappoint. It was perfectly fine for a short flight, and I thought it was a good option. Certainly beats intra-European business class!
For my flight from Xian to Beijing, I found a great business class fare on C Trip for $196 on a new Hainan Airlines A330 with this note on service: “Notes: Super Economy Class: First Class services with an Economy Class ticket (First Class seat and meal), Economy Class ground service standard with 20kg free baggage allowance; 125% more miles awarded to Fortune Wings member. Inapplicable to infant.” So it’s basically a discounted business class seat with economy ground service and baggage allowances, which worked fine by me, because I was traveling light.
What was so great about this flight is that it was aboard an A330, one of the airline’s largest planes, and one they use to fly international routes from Beijing to Berlin and to Seattle.
The 36 business seats were full lie-flat beds in a 2 x 2 x 2 configuration with 74 inches of pitch, and 21 inches wide. Each had an in-seat 10.6-inch TV monitor (and economy had individual seatback monitors as well). The food was also pretty delicious, though I can’t honestly say I knew what a lot of it was (you can help me guess from the photos). There were two courses, which is pretty impressive on such a short flight.
Again, service was great, the flight attendants were very considerate and told us exactly what gate we’d be landing at and what to expect at Beijing’s airport, and all in all made it a really good experience. I would definitely fly them again.
The Westin Beijing Chaoyang
I spent my first three nights in Beijing at the St. Regis, so on my way back, I wanted to try out another Starwood property, the Westin Beijing Chaoyang. This is a Category 4 property, and requires 10,000 Starpoints for a free night. I booked standard Deluxe Room directly from SPG for a best available rate of 1,600 RMB (about $250), and upon arrival was upgraded to a corner Westin Executive Renewal Room thanks to SPG Platinum status. I was skeptical of it actually being an upgrade, but when I saw the spacious corner room I was pretty impressed. For a one night stay, it was more than fine.
My room was just under 650 square feet with windows on two walls, a king-size Heavenly Bed, a small work desk with an ergonomic chair and printer-copier-scanner-fax, a chaise lounge (with a leg massager!), and a large marble bathroom with a separate rain shower and a bathtub with a television over it …so I wouldn’t miss a minute of CNN. Another great perk with or without status is the free high-speed internet in all rooms.
All in all, I had a fantastic first trip to China. I was happy that I’d gone off-peak, so it wasn’t crowded. Yes, it was cold, but I had plenty of jackets, and it was amazing to have sections of the Great Wall and even corners of the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum all to myself. I know it’s the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more to explore, but for a first trip and with so many great points-earning hotels to check out, doing a combination of Beijing, Shanghai and Xian along gave me a great taste of both old China and the new, as well as a sampling of some great Starwood and Hyatt properties.
For anyone else considering a visit, I’d recommend Henry Kissinger’s book, On China. I read it while flying to get a better background on the country’s history and politics, as well as to learn more about the world from China’s perspective—basically it was the center of the universe until Westerners came around and turned everything upside down (kidding..sort of). Reading it before my trip definitely let me be more open-minded about what I’d experience there and put the things I saw and did in a larger context.
I also thought the food was amazing. Yes, I stayed in very nice hotels, but I had great guides showing me around each city, and got to explore the food scene at least a little bit. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that one of my favorite meals was unidentified street meat on a stick in Shanghai!
Everyone was extremely friendly and helpful—their only hesitation to talk with me was because of the language barrier. If anything, I’d say my overriding sensation was intrigue. It’s just such a huge, different place from anywhere else I’ve ever been, with many distinct subcultures and interesting destinations—I know I’m going to be exploring it for the rest of my life.
Just as a note, I used Allied Passport & Visa to secure my visa to China in a rush, and it was fast, painless and relatively inexpensive, so I’d highly recommend it.
A Note on Facebook and Twitter in China
By the way, thanks to the TPG readers who suggested I use Astrill VPN to circumvent the “Great Firewall of China” in order to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube while there. It basically hides your IP address while surfing the web in China, giving you access to social media sites that would otherwise be blocked. It was easy to install, even easier to use, and it helped me keep connected with all of you. It cost $9.98/month for a 3-month membership, and it was well worth it!