Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Big Ol' Beijing

Beautiful blue sky Beijing day!  Never thought that I would ever hear those words come out of my mouth.  As I have previously mentioned, the air quality in Beijing is generally hazardous to your health at best - I am not over exaggerating here.  According to the air quality people, anything over 300 ppm of pm2.5 (some particulate matter thing) is hazardous to the health of a healthy person - imagine being young, old, ill, etc - it can be down right deadly.  But today, it was nice and clear and from the office you could see for miles and all I can say is WOW is Beijing ever dense.  I don't know that I had ever really gotten a good sense of how big Beijing truly is.  I mean it is one of the largest cities in the world, with over 20 million people, but with the exception of the subway during rush hour, it never seems that way.  So today I took some time to just stare out the window to get a good sense of how big Beijing really is and then is when I got a good feeling of the density and the sheer volume of high rises - I guess I never had that great of an appreciation for just how many of them there are.  Mind you, this 20 million plus people have to live somewhere. . .

I made the picture extra big so you could start to see how the density.
I also had this realization today, well actually earlier in the week but it was amplified today when I could see how big Beijing is, I really don't know Beijing at all.  Sure, I am becoming quite adept at finding my around in the 5km radius of my hotel and work.  Beyond that, I have really had very little exposure to Beijing and I am not sure that that will change a whole lot. Beijing isn't one of those places where you can just hope on a bus and see where it takes you - mainly b/c bus transit is very slow.  Plus, there is this little thing called a language barrier - at least in The Netherlands, I can kinda make out what words mean and make sense of sign, in China, not so much.  As previously mentioned, my Mandarin skills are non-existent!  I think for now, I will keep to my little radius and continue to explore it and appreciate it - it is filled with quite a lot of parks and green spaces and continue to become more comfortable with it.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Don't Look Them In The Eye

This isn't even busy!
Some of the best advice I have received so far whilst being in China has been "don't look them in the eye".  Who might you be asking?  Cabs, cars, other pedestrians, etc.  I have started to implement this approach as I get off the subway, as I am trying to cross a crazy Beijing intersection or I am walking thru a throng of people.  As soon as you look them in the eye - you are dead as it means that you have acknowledged them, you know that they are there and then you have to get out of the way!  However, if you continue to look down or down and ahead, all while paying attention to what is in your peripheral vision, like a bus which will not stop for anyone, and the odd cab who doesn't care, you can pretty much move safely around Beijing.

So this is my 3rd trip to China in less than 2 months (I wasn't anticipating being here this much - my 2nd trip was unanticipated) and I am definitely feeling much more comfortable and much more sure of myself.  Now I know that shocks some of you, as you see me as this travelling warriorette, but this warriorette does get scared and isn't always comfortable when she travels.  For my past 2 visits I have opted to stay at the Grand Hyatt Beijing, partly b/c I am a Hyatt Passport holder and know that I am going to have enough stays this year to move up the ol' frequent stayer food chain, but also because the Hyatt has a better room service menu than Trader's did, and in a place like China, having some N. American comfort food at easy disposal is important!

The trade off with staying at the Hyatt is that I am about a 10 minute cab ride to work (which costs about $3 CDN) or a 4 stop subway ride.  Normally what I have been doing is taking a cab in the morning and then the subway home - mainly because I am lazy, but today I took the subway both ways.  A one-way trip on the subway costs me about 50 cents and I even went so far as to buy a subway card last week, once again using my famous pointing and nodding skills as well as presenting money.  Hell - the lady at the ticket counter was able to figure out what I wanted.  If I catch the subway around 8am and around 5:30pm, it isn't usually that busy - give it 30 minutes more on each and then it is me and 1000 of my closest Chinese friends making our way to work.
One of my subway stations
Beijing is DEFINITELY getting easier and I am starting to venture out just a little bit more.  I am feeling fairly confident when taking a cab and I always have my hotel taxi card with - it says where I am staying in Mandarin characters and I know which main road I am staying on and can point in the general direction.  I have also learned that tapping, pointing, and nodding are effective communication tools, particularly when my Mandarin is non-existent and their English is the same - most times we can figure it out.  Most taxis in Beijing are metered, except for the ones outside of the Silk Market and I know how much it should cost me to get back to my hotel 20 RMB not 150 RMB and have been able to practice my "screw off" in English there :-)

I am not to the point where I  LOVE Beijing yet and I am not sure that I will ever get there, but I am definitely finding my own here.  By nature I am not the most patient person - I know - shocking, but I have had to be patient with Beijing because it has pushed me far outside of my comfort zone and in order to get back to my comfort zone, I have had to be patient, and it is now starting to pay off.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Maison Boulud Beijing

Those who know me, know that I LOVE good food and don't have an issue spending good money for an amazing meal, as those types of meals are not just about the food but also about the experience.  So for as much as I have commented on the food here in China, truth be told, I have yet to have a bad meal. Yes, there have been some crazy (and nasty) things on the menu, and yes we did order donkey once (which I DID NOT eat), I have generally had good food and brunch today was no exception.

When I was in Beijing a few weeks back, I discovered a few high end restaurants and decided that on this trip that I would see if I could try one or two of them out, so today I went to Maison Boulud for brunch.  Daniel Boulud, for those who don't know, is an award winning French Chef with a 3 Michelin Star restaurant in NYC called Daniel.
Keeping my fingers crossed, I sent off an email yesterday afternoon to see if it would be possible to get a reservation for 1 for brunch for today - late, I know.  Brian Reimer, the executive chef quickly responded saying that they would have a place for me at noon.  The restaurant is located in Chi'en Men 23 which is where the old American Embassy used to be and is about a 5 minute taxi from my hotel.  When I arrived, they quickly acknowledged me and it was almost as though they were waiting for this solo diner.  I was quickly escorted to my table, which btw was not tucked away in the corner by the kitchen, but rather near the front of the restaurant where I could see everything.

Below is a photo montage of what I had for my 3 course brunch.  Unfortunately I didn't get pictures of the wine but I started with a 2012 Chateau d'Esclans Whispering Angel Rose Cotes de Provence and then for my burger, asked the sommelier to pair something to go with the burger.  He chose a 2006 Chateau Baret - which was lovely.

Bread basket with Cherry & Apple Preserves & Whipped Cream - there was also a muffins tray

Soup of Five Peas and Lettuce, Savory Cream Smoked Bacon, Brioche Croutons 
The db Burger
Sirloin Burger Filled with Braised Short Ribs & Foie Gras Served with Pomme Frites 

White Peach Sorbet

Hot Madeleines

"Just because" treats - home made caramel, macaroons & nougat - yummy!
To finish it all off

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New Favourite or First World Problems

Yep - it is back to Beijing and like I say, 3rd time is a charm.  With each trip here, I am becoming more and more comfortable with it, although the whole food thing still has me a little edge, although this has yet to lead to any sort of weight loss but I digress.

For this trip I was hoping to fly on Singapore Airlines as they are supposed to have an amazing business class product but I am quickly finding out that unless I book at least 4-6 weeks in advance, they typically sell out, particularly over the weekend & Mondays, which is when I usually want to travel.  On my first trip I flew Lufthansa on the A380 (the double-decker) and it was okay however they don't have lie-flat seats - I know, first world problems, but I will come back to that.  For my 2nd trip to Beijing, which wasn't planned, I flew on Malaysia Airlines from KL and on China Southern back to Amsterdam - both were okay but once again, no lie-flat seats.  I generally also rule out KLM as well because as much as I want to collect the little blue and white houses that you get in business, they too don't have a lie-flat seat - so who does that leave me with.   I think Cathay Pacific, Emerites and Air China, and given that I am trying to requalify for my Aeroplan Super Elite 100K, I went with Air China, which is part of the Star Alliance, and to be honest, I think I have a new favourite airline!
My pre-take off Champagne

The seat is very, very comfortable.  I think it is the same seat that United has put in their new planes (okay - so there is one thing I like about United) and that Air Canada is putting in their new planes as well.  And more importantly, it lies flat.   So why is this so important to me, well the flight to China from Western Europe is between 10-12 hours depending on where you fly from, and generally lands early in the morning in Beijing.  So for me, that means that I land, go to the hotel and have a shower and then off to the office I go and with the time difference (+6 hours), I want to have had some decent sleep on the plane.  With the angle-flat seats that a lot of airlines have, my legs dangle, down, you slide down to the bottom of your footrest and it is generally very uncomfortable.  First world problems I know, but when you land and then go to work, having been able to sleep and get your body adjusted, is important to me.

The food is very good and there is definitely no shortage of it.  Asall flights heading to Asia, you have the option of a Chinese or a Western menu and for this flight, I decided to be adventurous and went with the Chinese menu and it was very good (and there was no donkey or parts).
Amuse bouche
Appetizers & salad

They provide you with a very nice (and large) pillow and a large duvet - no thin knit blanket here..   And frankly, being comfortable is important to me, especially when I am in the air for so long.  The only downside with Air China is the movie/TV selection - it is rather limited (reviews had forewarned me) but I came prepared with my laptop loaded up with movies/TV shows.

Most of you probably don't know, but I suffer from minor panic attacks and usually I can talk myself through them, as half of my brain knows that I am having the attack and tries to rationalize with the other half which is flipping out.   There are 3 main places/times when I have them - movie theatres (weird - I know), scuba diving and when flying.   I generally have 1 panic attack per long-haul flight and they usually look like this - my heart starts to race, I start to breath quickly and I think, get me the f*#k out of here now. - this is consistent with all locations. I have this urge/need to get off/out of the plane and while the rationale side of me knows that this isn't possible, the panic side of me continues to flip out.  They usually last 5-10 minutes and when they are over,  I am fine and I suffer in silence - pretty sure that those around me don't even realize that they are happening.  The good news is that I didn't have one on this flight :-)  Yeah me.

Main course - some sort of Chinese prawns - no donkey!

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Little Bit More Lisbon

For our first full day in Lisbon, we got off to a rather late start as we both slept in. I am suffering from a little jet lag having just gotten back from China on Wednesday morning and we left for Lisbon on Wednesday night - that was my excuse. Our first course of action was to get some food, so we asked at the front desk of our hotel what she recommended that was close. Up the street from us was this great little bakery/lunch counter that seemed to fill up with people right after we arrived.  There was a little bit of a language barrier but the woman serving us knew that we were hungry and wanted to eat, so brought us this yummy seafood and rice dish.

Portugese Coke Zero

Our next course of action was to find the Hop On/Hop Off bus stop, which happened to be about a 10 minute walk from our hotel.  For the next hour and half, we happily rode around Lisbon taking in the sites and sounds of the city (and no, we didn't hop off).  After riding most of the Red Line of the bus, we got off in the central part of the old part of Lisbon (it has some name but I don't know what it is) and decided that we wanted to go up to the Castelo De S. Jorge,  which is this old castle that looks over Lisbon. It was built in the 11th century and much of it is still standing. Both Rebecca and I commented on the craftsmanship and wondered how the hell they built this at that time?! It truly is amazing what they did with very little technology (as we know it) 

Now the castle sits up above Lisbon, up high on a hill and honestly, the thought of trekking up there was not high on my list, so we took Tram 28 which a historic tram. Given that the streets in this part of Lisbon are old cobblestone, and the tramline is set in the old
cobblestone, it was a very rough ride up but we both agreed that it was much better than walking! We probably spent a good hour up there just wandering around, looking at the views of Lisbon and just enjoying the great weather.

After the castle, we found the bus (public transit) that would take us back down the hill, not that we were opposed to walking but we saw the bus and it was going where we were wanting to go, so why not?! We went back down to the square (who's name I don't know) where we finally found the elusive gelato. About 4 hours earlier I had said that we should have some gelato - do you think we could find any - no. But lo and behold, just after we got off the bus, I looked across the square and there it was - a gelato place. 

A big international mask festival was being kicked off  in a different square about a block away and we happened to catch the end of it. There were also a bunch of food booths and little kiosks of stuff to buy, including this really cool wool shop where I bought a small purse and Rebecca got the cutest little toque for the winter. While here, we also discovered some amazing food including some sort of cherry liquor in chocolate cups (yummy), a melted cheese on bread - hard to explain - see picture, then it was back to the Portugese bakery stalls, where we each had a chocolate egg tart.  
This is the cheese being melted

OMG these were so good - now I can see why they are so famous!
Trust me - it doesn't look like much but it is oh so good!

By now we had been touring about for 6.5 hours and decided that we would grab the Hop On/Hop Off bus and head back towards our hotel for a little rest, freshen up and would head down to the Port of Lisbon area for supper. Yah - that never happened. We got back to our hotel, and each laid down for a little rest.  I think I fell asleep first and when I woke up, Rebecca was sleeping so I went back to sleep. I heard her go out about 10:30pm I think, and when I got up this morning, I saw that she had McDonalds (it is just down the street from us) and bought me a cheeseburger :-)

Today we are heading out towards Alcochete, where there is a designer outlet mall for some shopping! Alchochote is located on the left bank of the River Tagus and is an authentic/traditional Portugese vaillage - so we should get some culture today as well :-) After that, the plan is to head down to the train station (we know where it is now) and take the train out to Estoril, which is where we will spend Saturday & Sunday, mainly relaxing on the beach, or at least that is the plan for now.

Lisbon Long Weekend

The one downside about living in the Netherlands is the lack of statutory holidays - there aren't as many as there are back in Canada and they all seem to be lumped together within 3 weeks - seriously. We got April 30 for Queen's Day, May 9 for Ascension, May 10 for who knows why and May 20 for WhitMonday and then we don't get anymore stats until Christmas. Unfortunately I didn't get to partake in Queen's Day as I was in Malaysia (and will eventually get all of my blogs posted :-) ) but luckily, I had made plans early in April with a colleague/friend Rebecca to take advantage of the first May long weekend by going to Portugal for 5 days.

I know Rebecca through work but it goes beyond that. When I first started working in oil & gas, I worked with her dad at Anderson/Devon and he used to talk about his daughters Rebecca & Renee who would have been in junior high at the time (this should give you an idea of the age difference). Flash forward about 14 years and her and I now both work for Shell and started to work together on a few projects in Heavy Oil (she is a landman). In early December she found out that she got a short term international assignment (STIA) over to the Netherlands to a place called Groningen and moved there in March. What is good for me is that she loves to travel too, so her and I had got to talking at work and decided that we would try this weekend together.

For me, this is the least planned I have been on a trip, and I am not an uber planner. Essentially, all we had booked was our flights (KLM to Lisbon on Wednesday night) and our hotels in both Lisbon & Estoril. Rebecca was in charge of booking our first 2 nights in Lisbon and I booked our rooms in Estoril and our last night in Lisbon. We are leaving nice, bright and early (6:30am - ugh) on Monday, so I just booked us at the Holiday Inn up by the airport. Rebecca scored for us in Lisbon big time. She booked us into the Clarion Suites, which had decent ratings on TripAdvisor and was in a pretty central location. When we arrived, which was about midnight, the guy upgraded us to the penthouse suite, which was essentially a 2 bedroom apartment. We had a living room, 2 bedrooms each with a king sized bed and 2 full bathrooms - all for 175 euros!

We have nothing planned for this trip except that we would do the Hop On/Hop Off bus to get a sense of the city and then would just go from there. Normally I have done some searching on the internet or picked up a travel book - for this trip - nope. Just winging it!