• Beijing Rural Family Fun
  • Nov.12, 2015
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    It's easy to miss out on Beijing's best spots when we limit our advantures to expat favorites like Sanlitun, Houhai, etc. In the comfort of those venues there are so many "foreigners" that we don't need to speak Chinese. Nobody stares at us, western food abounds, and coffee shops are everywhere. But, despite the cultural comfort of these places, some of Beijing's best family fun spots are still left undiscovered by outsiders. My family recently discovered an off-the-beaten path destination that rarely sees foreign faces, a place that is now on our list of favorites.

     

    Wali(洼里) is a genuine rural family experience. Located in Beijing's northern suburbs just outside of 6th Ring Road, visitors quickly forget the urban crowds, traffic, and hurried pace. Wali is a hard place to define. One Chinese website calls it a 乐园(le yuan). My iPhone dictonary defines le yuan as paradise, but Wali is not heaven. It does not display the colored lights of an amusement park and it's anything but Disney. Wali is a simple country setting with lots of fun things for kids and families to enjoy together, all for the low cost of 25 Yuan for the whole day(30 on weekends).

     

     

    Just inside the entrance, visitors climb, swing and balance on ropes and chains, along an obstacle course that leads to a swinging rope hanging over a pit, resembling something my dad would have made. One of the great things about Wali is that most of the equipment is also strong enough to support adults. My son is swinging on the rope in the picture above, but I was next in line. Wali also features huge wooden-seated swings and large plank seesaws, strong enough to hold any member of the family. Most of Wali's equipment is rugged and durable.

     

    As expected by the low entrance fee, there are no motor-powered carnival rides. Wali's hands-on and hand-operated contraptions include two small zip lines, an extra wide slide, two walk-through mazes, two large barrels for kids to walk in rolling them along a short section of railway track, and sundry activities not found in other parks. There's a small area sectioned off for smaller kids that includes two "manual" rides: A sort of merry-go-round that has old wooden school chairs instead of horses, and a circular swing powered by parents, as seen in the picture below where my wife and I are turning the wheel in the center to make the swings go around.

     

     

    A favorite for many is Wali's real working corn mill where kids step back in time and pour shelled corn into a primitive stone grinder and walk around it pushing long wooden poles until the course powder comes out around the edges. Next, they scoop it up with their hands and carry it over to a larger rolling stone on a round stone table (pictured below). There, they push the roller around, smashing the course product into cornmeal.

     

    Unlike most zoos that have "don't feed the animals" signs posted everywhere, Wali actually encourages visitors to feed their furry hosts. They even sell greens outside the gate for this purpose. While there doesn't seem to be a lot of staff supervision in the animal park, which most likely violates some safety codes, visitors enjoy reaching over fences to pet the heads of horses, camels, and other friendly animals. There are no tigers, lions, or other dangerous predators. Feeding the animals is something our kids always enjoy, but the most unique feature of Wali's animal park is the large fenced in area where humans can enter and "interact" with the animals.

     

     

    The mix of animals is also unique. We can walk among cows, ducks, chickens, rabbits, goats and even ostriches. Two of these little friends are pictured below. My daughter fell in love with a tiny black bunny that actually tried to follow us out.

     

    Every time we visit Wali, we discover something we didn't notice before, like the little agriculture museum displaying antique farm tools and a huge round craft room where kids(for a small fee) can create their own take-home crafte. And, if you don't mind wearing extra layers of clothing, go during the off-season. Wali's location is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it's difficult to get there without a car, but on the other hand, this difficulty makes it a lot less crowded than popular sites like the Beijing Zoo and Fragrant Hills, where going by subway and bus is almost too convenient.

     

     

    For my family, one of Wali's best charcteristics is the primitive environment, with the absence of excessive regulations and supervision found at many of the city's more "developed" sites. This freedom is a blessing at lunch time. Even though Wali has its own restaurnats, they don't forbid, or even discourage, brining in outside food. They even have running boiled water for visitors who tote their own instant noodles. Lunch for the animals is also less regulated. As mentioned above, visitors can purchase greens for feeding the animals, but Wali's animal park also takes no measures to prevent people from brining in their own cabbage, carrots and bread for the animals. Wali is genuine Chinese, but in many ways it reminds me of the freedom I enjoyed in my childhood on a Midwestern farm.

     

    If you're only looking for city lights and dance clubs, Wali may not be on your list of must-visit destinations. But if you're craving simple family fun in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, then Wali may be just the place for you.

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  • Alternatives to Starbucks
  • Feb 27, 2014
  • Don’t get me wrong by the title; I’m still a Starbucks fan, but it’s the only, or even the best, choice in Beijing. Being from the USA I should probably promote the American coffee giant, and I do, but let’s take a comparative look at three of the city’ biggest and most popular in Beijing: Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Mann Coffee.

     

    Everybody knows that some of the best brews and café environments are in smaller, less known coffee shops. They are everywhere, hidden in alleys, on college campuses and in places nobody would expect to see coffee. But that’s another article for another time. For now, let’s take a brief tour of the three largest chains and then let you choose your favorite.
     

    All three have excellent coffee, so most patrons won’t make their choice based on taste. All have Wi-Fi, but today who doesn’t? And like everywhere else, there are internet problems. I’ve had the least connection problems at Mann, but they’re all pretty good venues for surfing the net.  And they each have so many locations in Beijing that we lost count a long time ago.
     

    If you’re loyal to any particular part of the world, you will be happy to know that all three coffee chains have origins far from different continents. Starbucks headquarters is in the northwestern US state of Washington. Mann is Korean company and Costa is from the UK.
     

    Since I do a lot of my writing and other work in coffee shops, I’ll share some of the details that make a difference to me. Starbucks has the best variety of amenities, including cinnamon. They say artificial sweeteners are unhealthy, but I prefer them, so for me that’s a small point against Mann Coffee, the only one that doesn’t have this simple amenity. But the sweetener issue is too small to keep me out of Mann. Starbucks sweetener is Taikoo and since the ingredients are in Chinese I have no idea if it causes cancer, but it’s probably a lot cheaper than Equal. Costa provides Splenda, which experts say is among the least harmful.
     

    They all provide clean surroundings and a variety of comfortable seating. Mann is the coziest, with a Victorian style library, vintage hanging lamps and antique style chairs, with a few softer armchairs mixed in. Mann, at least in the Beijing locations I’ve visited, uses table-top humidifiers, a nice touch considering the city’s desert-dry air.  Most Costa and Mann locations also include soft bench style seats. All three offer a choice of sleepy arm chairs or hardback chairs. All are smoke-free, so if you’re a chain smoker you better hang out in UBC or one of the others that allow smoking. 
     

    The biggest difference between the three coffee chains is the food choice and service. Starbucks and Costa are the fastest, but Mann offers nice service touches. At the first two everything is pre-made so they just warm it up and give it to you with your drink at the counter. Mann, a little more unique, hands you a cute little teddy bear that you take back to your table. I guess the color of the bear tells the waitress which order is yours. So, you can sit down and start working or talking while they brew your coffee and prepare your food while the teddy bear sits patiently on your table. The poor bear never gets to eat. As soon as the order is brought to the table he (or is it a she?) he is whisked away.
     

    Each features totally unique menus. Mann’s specialties are sandwiches and waffles. Waffles? Yep! All day they serve a variety of breakfast waffles, just like many of the cafés in Korea. But my favorite is their tuna sandwich, which comes with a small side salad. Don’t go to Starbuck’s expecting the same things on the menu you’re used to back home, but the sandwich, salad and sweets choices aren’t bad. Costa has a few sandwiches and more sweets.
     

    Take your pick. Compare menus and features and see if Mann, Starbucks or Costa suits you. For me all three are topnotch, so the main deciding factor is almost always location. I’m typing this article in Costa because it’s near a supermarket where I need to go this afternoon. Some of the places my wife likes to shop are located next to Starbucks, so that becomes the perfect place to work while I’m waiting. And there’s a huge two-story Mann Coffee shop near the school where my kids attend in Shunyi, which has become one of my favorites. For us coffee lovers, it’s nice to be in a city with so many great choices!
     

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  • Pinnacle Plaza - Almost Like Home
  • Feb 20, 2014
  • One of the blessings of living in Beijing is that we don’t have to feel so far away from home, even if home is on the opposite side of the globe. There are places in the city where we can escape to that are so much like home we almost forget we are overseas. Pinnacle Plaza in Beijing’s northern Shunyi district is one of those places.

     

    Pinnacle Plaza isn’t a thrill park with rides and swimming pools. It is not known as a hotspot for nightclubs, like Sanlitun.  In fact it isn’t even listed as a popular destination in tourist guidebooks. But Pinnacle plaza is like home.
     

    One of the ways it resembles my home town in Midwestern America is its layout. Instead being squeezed into skyscrapers with underground parking like the rest of Beijing, the shops in Pinnacle plaza are lined up in single-story strip mall layout with parking in the front. The plaza’s eating venues and shops are more than adequate to remind you of home. Of course there’s a Starbucks, but that’s pretty commonplace in Beijing. Pinnacle has much more to remind you of home.

     

    When it comes to buying western groceries, most expats in Beijing are familiar with Jenny’s supermarkets. The Jenny Wang’s at Pinnacle Plaza is larger than her other stores and inside feels like Spartan Supermarkets back home. Whether you are hunting for cheese, chips, meat, cereal, coffee or anything else you can’t find elsewhere in the city, Jenny’s has it.
     

    Even though Domino’s Pizza can be found all over Beijing, there’s just something about the one in Pinnacle Plaza (pictured left) that looks like home.  Burger King and Baskin Robbins are not unique to the plaza either, but the outside seating and porch pillars in front of the buildings give them a pleasant small-town feel. Mrs. Fields Cookie Café serves some of the tastiest cakes and cookies in the area. Hungry Horse, which has a full menu of delicious American and Mexican food, is just around the corner from the cookie shop. And for dinner, don’t forget Eatalicious Italian Experience.

     

    Pinnacle Plaza isn’t only about restaurants. It has other services as well. If you need medical help, there’s a United Family Clinic in the plaza. Schlinder’s Meat Shop, Win’s arts and Framing and a real estate office are there as well. In the back – this is just like home – you’ll even find a Michelin Tire shop!
     

    Finding your way to Pinnacle Plaza is a cinch. You can always take a taxi, but even if you go by subway you’ll only have to walk about ten minutes. Get off from Line 15 at the International Exhibition Center station, go out the back door and cut across the exhibition center parking lot walking south-west. When you exit the parking lot you can’t miss Euro Plaza Shopping Mall. That’s another western-like place you may want to explore. Take the street that comes to a T beside the mall and walk south about three minutes and you’ll see Pinnacle Plaza. Bring a book or your computer and plan on spending a day "back home".
        

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  • Beijing Valentine
  • Feb 14, 2014
  • Some of my Chinese students call it Lovers’ Day. In my American Culture class I list holidays on a PPT slide and quiz the class to find out how many students know which holidays are American and which ones are international. There are always a few who think Christmas and Easter are American, but every student is quick to acknowledge Valentine’s Day is an international holiday. It’s widely celebrated in China.
     

    Being in Beijing is no excuse for forgetting your special someone on this romantic day. Flowers, chocolates, jewelry and heart-shape cards are everywhere. At the very least, you can send a free Valentine’s e-card. If that’s too much trouble, how about a “Happy Valentine’s Day” text message? But don’t be too surprised if that leaves him or her disappointed. If you already forgot to send a Valentine’s greeting, sorry, it’s too late. Nothing is more insulting than a belated Valentine’s card!

     

    There are so many ways to say “I’m in love with you” in Beijing. But you better take the effort to really know the person before you buy, otherwise even the best intentions and most money spent may not mean love.
      

    Not everyone is as practical as my wife. She absolutely doesn’t like me to “waste” money on cut flowers, unless I buy them at an after Valentine’s Day half-price sale.  Don’t get me wrong. She’s romantic and she likes other gifts and nice dinners. But in Beijing, she would much rather eat out a day or two after the holiday than to wait an hour to get into a crowded restaurant on Valentine’s evening. But not everybody’s sweetheart is so practical.

     

    This year’s Valentine’s Day in Beijing was no less romantic that any other year or any other place. Stores were selling flowers, chocolate and jewelry. In the afternoon guys were seen carrying huge bouquets of flowers. In the evening they were seen with young ladies at their sides carrying the flowers. We were walking through a mall when my six year old son asked, “Why is everybody carrying flowers?”
      

    If you were one of the guys lucky enough to be with your sweetheart in Beijing this Valentine’s Day, and your date was so exciting you felt like fireworks were going off, well, they really were. This year Valentine’s Day fell on the same day as the Lantern Festival, the final day for lighting fireworks in the city. So if you missed it, too bad. Next year no matter how romantic your Valentine’s date, you probably won’t hear fireworks in the background.
      

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  • Beijing, Land of the Wealthy
  • Jan 31, 2014
  • If you’ve lived here as long as I have you remember when people used to come to China to buy things really cheap. Now, I take my family back to America every summer for the same purpose. No, shopping in the USA didn’t get cheaper, but prices in Beijing have gone through the roof.

     

    I also remember being one of those short-term visitors in the 1990s who would sometimes gawk at some of the poor conditions people lived in. Like any big city, Beijing still has its poor, but now I find myself gawking at things like the Lamborghini pictured on the right that I recently saw parked in Beijing’s Shunyi district. Where I’m from in America’s Midwest a sighting like this is extremely rare. But in Beijing it’s becoming more common.

     

    So, if you’re an exotic car enthusiast, Beijing may be just the place to be! Grab your camera and tour Shunyi, some of Chaoyang’s neighborhoods or almost any block inside of Second Ring Road, and it won’t be long till you’ll see something that will impress you.

     

    Small town people like me tend to think a BMW or Mercedes Benz is a mark of the elite. But in today’s Beijing these cars are as common as Chevys and Fords back home. Whether you’re talking about BMWs or Ferraris, you will find them in the parking lots of high class shopping malls and outrageously expensive elegant restaurants. You will see them parked in the city’s Central Business District and cruising down Financial Street.

     

    The city really has become a site for people who like to watch the wealthy. It’s a playground for the affluent. It’s not the typical third world city people used to think it was. The city has risen to the top of the world, an attraction for the world to come and see. 

     

    Even “normal” life in Beijing isn’t what it used to be. College students are learning to drive and applying for license plates. The old “ping fang” single-story homes are coming down, being replaced with expensive high rise apartment buildings. The picture on the right looks like a middle class neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs. And, it is in the suburbs – Beijing’s north suburbs. A decade or so ago, who would have ever dreamed the city would look like this? But here it is; one of the most luxurious cities in the world!
            

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