I have to admit that I am certainly spoiled by the quality of hotels I stay in these days. Here, the equivalent of a $125 Marriott Courtyard in Chandler, Arizona is a Renaissance with a room on the 22nd floor featuring a super-modern bathroom enclosed in a glass cube, a king-sized bed the size of a football pitch, a fruit plate, a desk, a couch and an in-room safe. If that’s not enough to make you happy, you can spend your entire stay in the penthouse lounge drinking Irish whisky and watching action flicks on Cinemax. I’m not sure how I’ll ever go back to a regular hotel when I’m done with this life.
Dinner plans for our first night in the big city evolved into a trip to Face Bar, my favorite Asian hang-out. After many nights sitting on the patio at the Shanghai version, watching the sky slowly dim from pink to black as the bats hovered over the plane trees, I decided that there would be no more worthy dinner than one taken at the Beijing version, a new one on me. So we left the hotel, found a cabbie and after a bit of discussion we found ourselves pretty much on our way.
I had a map and I had a direction card from their web site but these things really only provide approximations in this part of the world. It’s a funny situation – hotels and restaurants provide written directions because most travelers don’t speak the language. But the cabbies often have only the most basic understanding of where these places are, instructions or no instructions. And of course no Chinese driver can read a map. “Chinese Maps” are nothing more than driving around and asking people on the street if they happen to know where the place is. Often getting where you want to go involves a set of successive approximations which means if you have no idea where you’re going, and don’t have the language, you may very well find yourself God knows where. On this night our cabbie took us on a hugely circuitous route (I knew this because I take the time to familiarize myself with the city before I get into a cab) to a largely deserted boulevard in the general vicinity of the restaurant. He dropped us off in front of a long line of brightly lit bars, made more so by the lack of streetlights.
As I was paying him my friend was accosted by a couple of young women who happened to be mysteriously waiting there on the median.
“Are you going to a lady bar?” she asked.
“No”, he responded.
“Do you want some company to go to the lady bar?”
“No”, he responded.
Getting straight to the point she inquired, “Do you want sex?”
The answer was still “no” and so they left us alone and went back to waiting for the next cab.
We found ourselves in the area of the Beijing Worker’s Stadium. Where precisely it happened to be was not all that clear given the darkness, but the restaurant was on the south side of it so we just started walking. Street signs here are a bit odd, often they don’t reflect the street you’re on, rather if they occur at intersections they point the way to some other street down the way. I’m sure the system works if you grew up with it but it’s pretty alien to me. Heading down the block we found a most unusual thing – a giant street-side map of the district. It was of limited use though as it was only in Chinese, but it did show the major landmarks albeit in an arrangement that made no sense relative to the way we’d come and the “you are here” star at the center of the map.
At the next intersection I took another bearing and pretty much decided that we needed to turn left. It seemed we were on Gongrentiyuchangbeilu when we really needed to be on Gongrentiyuchangnanlu. The street at the intersection was almost certainly Gongrentiyuchangxilu and so it was completely clear that it would lead to the place we wanted to go. For the sake of edification, the only critical bit of information in each of those names happens to fall after letter #15. “Lu” is Chinese for “big street.” “Bei” is north, “Nan” is south and “Xi” is west. Since the Gongrentiyuchang or “Worker’s Stadium” stands in the middle of the three streets, all we needed to do was leave the north road, walk down the west road to the south road and turn left a second time. By the way, the cleverest of you might have now made the connection that “Beijing” is the north capital and “Nanjing” is in the south.
And sure enough there it was, right behind the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish language school here in Beijing.
Face Bar takes its design from south Asia, originating in Jakarta with outlets in many of the major regional cities. All of them are decorated in a most exotic style with lots of antiques, Buddha, carpets, old stuffed chairs and funky wooden tables. The old one in Shanghai was situated in a 1930’s mansion in the French Concession and it oozed ambiance. This one was at the end of a dark alley, but no less atmospheric. The wall art featured quite a few prints of Che Guevara and José Martí. Dim lighting colorful paper lanterns and incense complete the illusion. We’d made a reservation and while the maitre d’ wanted to sit us when we stumbled in from the cold, we decided instead to sit in the bar and soak up some of the place. My standard drink here is a Vodka Gimlet, because I can’t think of a more colonial cocktail. We sat, imbibed and watched the Chinese 20-somethings play billiards.
There are usually 3 or 4 restaurants at each location - Thai, Indian and Moroccan with Chinese sometimes thrown in. The Indian room at the old Shanghai spot was located in a tent and decorated to look like it was set up for a Mughal hunting party. The Thai room was on the second floor of the mansion where I imagine the old British colonial administrator would sit and drink Gin and read the daily dispatches. Our reservation for the Thai dining room turned out to be useless because we were the only two people in the non-smoking room. There was a couple sitting on the other side of a partition in the smoking section, French I think, a young man and a young woman who consistently confused her napkin with her mini-skirt, the latter being that short. She had on shiny black stocking that glistened in the candle light; he had on a giant-sized wristwatch.
A couple of curries, Thai salad and a bowl of coconut milk soup and we left the place a hundred or so dollars lighter. But it was worth it because you simply can’t get that kind of dining experience anywhere but here. The cab ride back to the hotel was much less challenging – hotels are apparently easier to find, at least in my Chinese experience. We drove through the fancy shopping district marveling at the enormous Cartier store and planning for the next day’s adventures.