Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Last Round-Up


We will soon be loading up the car and heading into San Antonio. It's a somewhat emotional day. Of course, I won't be too emotional to stop at Rudy's BBQ as we approach the city limits ...or stop at the new Off Fifth or Nordstrom's Rack, but it's a time of return.

As they say in literary circles: someone comes to town; someone leaves town.

I left here just about a year and a half ago, headed to San Diego and what was surely an adventure ...although not one with the happy ending I was expecting. Now I am back in Junction, Texas in the same Best Western where it all began. It is my personal philosophy that all things go round.

It is also my Grandma Jessie's birthday. I thik she would be 108. I am good with remembering birthdays, but especially hers as I was shocked as a child to learn that she did not know her real birthday. I thought that was impossible. She explained to me in her little village in The Vale, then part of Russia, she was born on the second day of Passover and that's her real birthday.

This means she has a lunar birthday which moves, it also means that when she came into the U.S. as a six year old child with her name pinned to her dress, she needed a birthday.

I mention this because over the years I have met many immigrants. Invariably their birthday falls on the 30, 31rst or 1rst of every month. I had a girlfriend in LA, born in a DP camp after WWII, who was part of a family of five. Mother, father and siblings all had birthdays in different months but on the first day of that month.

So I celebrate the years of wandering, I celebrate my return to the house I own. Thehosue I bought about a mile from my father so I could be nearby for his final years. We buried him about a year and a half ago and I left town shortly thereafter. When I return, it is in time to bury my girlfriend's father. I have known her since we were 13 years old. And I know her birthday.

There were fields of bluebonnets on the roadside and so we celebrate spring. It will be Passover in a week. But I'll get to more outlets before then.

Monday, March 30, 2009

MMBA


When I was a girl, my father did business in Kenya and so my family often visited there. You'd be out in the bush, driving and driving, and someone would say 'MMBA' which means 'millions of miles of bloody Africa.' I thought of this today as we left El Paso and headed East, toward home.

The highlight of the day began before we even left El Paso. In fact, we had to back-track to get to El Paso Saddleblanket Factory Store, your basic TT with two acres of merchandise and three acres of parking. Because I am wild for a store in San Antonio called Garden Ridge (another 5 acre sort of place), I wanted to see this store to compare the two. They are total opposites.

Saddleblanket claims to be a wholesaler, which is hard to verify. They are certainly one of the retail wonders of the world. Few have ever seen so much merchandise in one place. (www.saddleblankethomecollection.com)

Located on Gateway East, which is what locals call the frontage road in El Paso, this store sells Mexican souvenirs, blankets, rustic furniture and all sorts of things in between-- dried piranha fish, rattlesnake heads made into paperweights, etc. There was a very interesting jewelry section but the piece I was seriou about seemed too much like something I'd seen in Bangkok for $6. I thought $38 was a fair enough price, but the necklace wasn't quite right. So I went to the carpet department.

There I spent about an hour touching, unfurling and questioning the staff about the variety of carpets from kilims to new weaves. Pets are welcomed at the store, so the Doxie Boys ran around with glee. When I chose a kilim for my office, I questioned the type of dye.
"What will happen if the dog pee's on the carpet?" I asked.

My salesman didn't even blink. When we volunteered to test, he never even blanched. He seemed a ver good salesman and the kilim would add a lot of zip to my house in San Antonio. We bargained a little on price and then added in the cost of shipping. There's simply too much stuff in the car to consider cramming in a carpet.

We got out of Dodge around 11AM and headed east. There is nothing between El Paso and San Antonio, nothing at all. About an hour and a half out of El Paso,we turned our clocks ahead and stopped at a patrol station where big guys with big guns and a very big dog were thoroughly inspecting the cars ahead of us.
"We have two dogs in the car!" I told the officer, terrified there would be a dogfight.
"U.S. citizens?" he asked.
We had to be quick on that one. Sarah and I both nodded, hoping he was referring to the two of us.
After all, Toffee carries a French passport.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Deep in My Heart



Things got better shortly after we crossed into Texas. But then, I knew they would. New Mexico is a very nice state and they keep up I-10 in admirable condition, but we sang a round of The Eyes of Texas as we rolled by the granite and bronze welcoming star and I knew I was home at last.

Shortly thereafter, we were at Exit 6, The Outlets of El Paso, easily visible from the highway because of the bright desert and Mexican colors-- deep purple, sage, ochre, terra cotta-- splashed across the sagebrush. Indeed, there was tumbleweed blowing down the main walking street in the center of the mall.

The mall seems very new: it's spiffy, well designed and, as Hemingway might say, 'a clean, well-lighted outlet mall'. We went to the Old Navy outlet, Sarah and I each carrying a doxie who was gently stuffed into one of the store's shopping carts cum baby seat. Both boys sat peacefully in their respective carts while we shopped. I was in search of more t-shirts like several I already own from the regular retail Old Navy in Novato, but no luck.

Still we found a pleasant mix of low-cost merchandise they seemingly wanted to unload and new, spring clothing that was at regular price. Old Navy outlets are famous for selling regular price merchandise, so you need to pay attention before you celebrate your bargains.

My check-out rang at $112, which was the most fun I've had in quite a while: 4 t-shirts, a pair of trousers, a 'silk georgette' peasant blouse and a print hoodie. Of course it all mixes and matches and is machine washable. Now I am well equipped for the Born to Shop research trip to Italy in May.

There weren't too many stores we hadn't seen before and fell into the discussion of just how many outlet malls one needs to visit before it all goes stale, but still...we were impressed. There are a handful of high-end brands such as Coach and Brooks Brothers and a lot of shoe and board stores with the usual suspects thrown in. There is a food court, but because we had the Doxie Boys with us, we were in search of a Sonic.

We never really found Sonic, but were quite happy to find Fuddruckers and a stream of cowboy boot outlets: Tony Lama, Justin and Luchesse. Sam Luchesse was my first subject when I began work for People Magazine, so the brand is dear to me. Sam passed away in 1980 and the firm was sold out of the family. Yet the quality is unmistakable. The difference in the quality of the product at Luchesse when compared to the other brands is simply funny. Luchesse is more or less the same price but thousands of times better.

El Paso stretches and sprawls around mountain peaks and sagebrush, from exits 1-35 or so. Since I-10 is the heart of everything and maps were free and readily available, we just kept going east. After the outlet mall, we stopped at a roadside frutero truck and bought mangoes, $7 for a crate. They are golden female mangoes and should be ready to devour as soon as we hit San Antonio.

We spent the afternoon driving from outlet to outlet in El Paso-- many were closed on Sundays. We are drooling for the two acre store with the three acres of parking and look forward to getting there when they open tomorrow.

Until then, we can remember the just viewed sunset over the plains, the glowing red sign at Krispy Kremes which delivered a warm, fresh dozen into our laps and settle in to watch Sunday night television here at the Red Roof Inn.

Ghosts of Arizona



Alas, I can finally tell you why Arizona was the last state of the contigulous USA to be admitted to the union-- there was nothing to admit...or admit to.

Arizona Mills was pretty dismal, altho I will soon write more about what's called The Mills Concept just so you know. Here are the things I can tell you now:
* The line at Ross was too long for me to stand there to wait and pay for the 'silk georgette' black peasant blouse for $8.99 that I knew I couldn't live without. So I hid it in the handbag department. The line was still too long on our way out, so if you're there, would you please buy my blouse for me?
* Although this mall has a N-M Last Call outlet, it is not a good mall. It's enclsoed, it's dark, it's tacky and as Sarah said "I wouoldn't shop at this place even if I lived here!"
* The best thing we could find to photograph was the display of gumballs at an interior candy kiosk.
The outlet after that,on Highway I-10 about 40 minutes south of Phoenix enroute to Tuscon, The Outlets at Casa Grande, was so bad that we want to award the Tanger corporation an award for the worst attempt ever made in America.
We are now in New Mexico and off to Texas. There's a new mall outside of El Paso. Hook 'em!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

2 Outlets; Extra Funerals


There are sometimes in a journalist's life when he (or she) knows he's onto 'the big' one; there are other times he just get's lucky-- Dick Stolley on the stake-out in front of Marina's Oswald's house.

Me? What can I tell you...this might not be breaking news... but this factory outlet stuff is a far bigger economic and sociological story than I ever imagined when we first started this journey to Texas.

Granted, yesterday was Friday and Friday's tend to pop even at 9:55AM when crowds began to gather at the Camarillo Outlets.These guys were not the early morning mall-walker types; they were gripping plastic and shouting for service.

We had spent the first night on the road at La Quinta on the far side of Ventura and yes, Ventura is a lot larger than you think it is. The next morning, we only had one or two exits before arriving at my favorite strip center in the area which is not really an outlet mall.We shoot off on exit 62A, Vineyard Avenue for the Esplanda Mall. When off the highway, you turn right and then right again at the JIffy Lube. This may seem simple to you, but actually, once off the highway, you can't see the retail center.

The strip is your pretty much average American middle clasws suburban pit stop for everything destination with a Target, World Market, Borders, Bed,Bath & Beyond, etc. In the cneter of all this stand a large Marshall's and a Nordstrom Rack. Pay dirt! Mon-Sat hours 9:30AM-9:30PM; SUn 11am-8pm.

There's also Starbucks and plenty of fast food if you are tempted to stay all day. We pushed on back to the highway, past more strip centers, past Babies R Us and car delaers galore. We were wistfull over the Marshall's and Ross combo on the other side of the divided highway but we pushed on until we saw-- five minutes later-- the sign that read FACTORY STORE DRIVE NEXT RIGHT.

I won't bore you with the adventure this brought on, the frustration, the questions or the cursing. The sign at this gorgeous outlet mall said The Promenade Opening Soon-- not one store was open. We went berserk.

A consultation with Aaron Gershman, the great part-time shopper, revealed that the Camarillo outlets were huge and not in renovation. While I chatted, Sarah spotted our true destination, leapt across five lanes of traffic and got us safely intot he parking lot of Camarillo Premium Outlets.

Some lucky shopper will someday soon get a double header. We were content with Coach, Off Fifth, Calypso (from St. Barth's) and the usual cast of characters.

I really do have lot smore to say, and yes there was a funeral-- an extra one-- but time and road conditions do not make for regular blogging. Stick with me.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Five Outlets & A Funeral



Sarah Lahey (Editorial Director of Born to Shop and my BFF) and I are on the road and headed to the funeral. We will drive from San Francisco to San Antonio and end up at a funeral in San Marcos, Texas.

We had a rocky start getting out of Tiburon and will share some of the details as they apply to all shoppers and shippers.Even the brands we trust the most, such as UPS, can be asleep at the wheel or at customer centers in India.

I have been sans domicile fixe for almsot six months and have accumulated a lot of t-shirts and WallMart pull on pants, so I prepared 20 boxes for UPS to ship to San Antonio so that we could fill the car with art and fragile antiques and the dogs, etc.

To make a long story short, UPS had the pick up order in their records but never checked the proper box to put it in action. We waited in vain for 8 hours and then went nuts when a day of our road trip began to disintegrate before our minds. We finally went online, opened a business account, printed out the labels and dragged all that stuff onto Sarah's porch. The house tilted forward. We left, not much caring who picked it up and grateful to not have to sit around another full day, waiting and hoping.

By 10:15AM, just two hours later than planned, we were headed south through The City, past San Jose and on to our first stop, Gilroy. This is a city that announces itself with its aroma-- you can smell the garlic capital everywhere, it's in the air you breathe. Serious shoppers can even stop at farm stands for garlic and garlic products.

The outlet center here, Gilroy Premium Outlets, has 145 stores. There are no signs on the highway before you get there, you are almost forced to pass it, take the next exit and cut back in a screwball fashion (the streets dont go through in a grid as they might) until you pass the business park and enter what is essentially a village of outlet stores. The exit you want, while driving south on Highway 101, is Leavesly Road, exit 355.

Three separate strip centers have been bought up, renovated and integrated to make for this outlet center which is neither a fake village atmosphere, like many of the Chelsea Village outlets, or any kind of modern cityscape, per the new American Mall concepts.

These are just jazzed up strip centers with nice landscapping, adequeate parking for a weekday, many fast food joints and many of the names we love to shop. Mostinteresting is the fact that the strips are seprated by main roads such as Arroyo Circle and therefore some of the designers, such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and even Samsonite, have multiple stores as they must have marketing research that proves the chicken won't cross the road to get to the other outlet.

One portion of the 3-part centers has more retail devoted to children, this also includes The Paper Store which is a party store with great deals on wrapping paper,72 sq ft for $5.99. Most of the other stres are more brand oriented.

The higher end names are across the street on the south side of the complex-- everything from Starbucks to Eddie Bauer, Polo, Jones New York, Le Crueset, Nike, Pac SUn, BCBG, Max Studios, IZOD, Coach, Micahel Kors and even Sony.

I had just seen a stunning Michael Kors spring style handbag in a recent fashion magazine. His bags look like $3,000 but normally cost more like $300. At the outlet, prices were $150-200, obviously worth the price of gas.

All of the stores have a set of pictograms in the window-- no eating, no smoking, no dogs.

After al fresco lunch at McDonald's with Toffee and Junior Mint, we fled the doggy scene -- great ideas run in packs and many other diners were there with pets-- and went to the furthermost part of the center. Here I was sorely tempted by Auntie Anne's and Jelly Belly, but was not certain if they were true factory outlets. I mean, really.

Stores in this section included Timberland, Hugo Boss, American Apparel, Cole Haan and J. Crew. I went in for a Michele Obama moment. Now I must lsoe 20 pounds and tone the arms.

Then we sped south all the way on 101, passing America's fruit basket fields and pastures--sparkling green under the bright blue sky. Harvest season caused much activity in some fields and we were excited until we found out they were harvesting celery. How romantic is that? Not very!

We entered the wine country best seen in the mmovie Sideways, we considered tracking down the outlet store for J. Lohr, one of our favorite wines, but instead kept going toward Five Cities Drive, near Pismo Beach where Prime Outlets has a small outlet mall. Yawn.

We were exhausted by the time we got to our La Quinta Inn in Ventura but delighted to find that our $84 reserved from a hotel broker online (hotels.com)would be billed at the hotel's actual rate, $62. I also noted fine print about a $7 charge for a second person in the room and was able to get that removed.

The shopping never stops.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CHINESE WARNING

Although I thought I was done with the subject of China for now and yes, we do head out ont he road tomorrow and I will begin a new blog about that roadtrip, well a tidbit has come to my attention.

My sister-in-law Lauren is a physician and the mother of 3 girls, two of whom are pre-teens. I buy them all sorts of junk, especially if it has great packaging. In one of the Chinese grocery stores, I found God-only-knows-what in an adorable package. I think it was shampoo, but then, on the whole trip I only learned 4 new kanji and shampoo wasn't one of them.

Sooooo Sophia and Natalie ripped into their packages while Lauren had a quiet heart attack and reminded me that it is way too dangerous these days to give anyone, especially kids, any product from China that would or could be ingested into the body in any form-- by mouth or by skin.

So attention K-Mart shoppers and please take care when buying gifts!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Five Outlets & A Funeral

The blog lives on! In jsut a few days Sarah and Toffee and Junior Mint and I will pile into my new, shinny black Scion XD Toyota and drive from Tiburon to San Antonio.

The blogging begins on Thursday, March 26.

We plan to stop at one -- or more-- factory outlet malls each day and write about it. We arrive in San Antonio on April 1 to move into my house there but will continue blogging and finish up on April 4th, graveside in San Marcos for services honoring one of my oldest friends' father, who passed away a few weeks ago. After the ceremony, we will adjourn to Neiman-Marcus Last Call.

Amen.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Breakfast w/o Tiffany


Sarah and I aren't really up for breakfast at a normal hour yet-- jetlag still reigns. But around noonish, when we sat at the table for our bagels, cream cheese and coffee, i came up with a curious piece of shopping philosophy.

Sarah has been collecting Starbucks Citymugs for a number of years-- she has one from each of the cities we have reported on. We've considered adding in a Dallas mug since we get lay-overs at DFW all the time, but so far have resisted the reality.

We know nthere were mugs from hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing in the collection...yet they have vanished from the cabinent. We set out to replace them, at least two of them, on our recent trip to China.

Now then, this is what I have learned from having patterned dishes (Botanic Garden) and a variety of coffee mugs. As time passes, certain patterns go in and out of favor and you begin to love or loathe specific designs, often for no reason. I know that I hate GUANGZHOU because it's ugly and I suspect that I lvoe TAI PEI because I love the TaiPei airport, beyond that, our choice of mug has heretofore changed each day.

When we got to Starbucks in Beijing-- first stop of our past tour--we learned that the Chinese Citymugs have been re-designed. They now have vibrant color and are far more chic than their cousins in Sarah's kitchen cabinet. We do not know if all citymugs have been re-designed or jsut the Chinese. Maybe they made new ones to maximize the lead content, or the melamine. But I digress.

Now when we sit for breakfast we gravitate to the new Chinese mugs, which out-shine the others in a dazzling display of vibrancy. I think I like Beijing the best. Just don't tell Tommy Smothers.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Go Fish



I have now spent two days trying to get the fotos into the blog and fix the goof-ups, to no avail. I have, i think, learned how to put a picture into a NEW blog, which is not exactly what I had in mind. This is our goldfish Willy from Beijing, whom we freed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In the Bag


We have been back from China for about 36 hours, although most of them have been spent asleep or in jetlag fog. However, we did think to celebrate the new day-- whatever day it is-- with a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's.

It was all I could do to drag my sorry shape into the car, but Sarah decided that as an extra bonus she would transfer her 'stuff' into her new Shanghai bought handbag. I confess that I have been eying this handbag with quiet envy-- why didn't I buy one? Because I didn't need it? I mean, really...how pathetic am I?

Before I could full answer that question, and before we were safely into Denny's, the handle on the new bag had come undone and the bag is now broken; the threads of the screw are askew.

We are very grateful that our airplane did not get its parts from the same provider.

P.S. Tom, Sarah's husband who can fix anything, attempted his magic on this loose bolt yet 24 hours later announced the surgery was a failure and the bag is dead. RIP.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Farewell My Concubine



We leave for SFO early tomorrow morning, so I may not be blogging from China again before we arrive home. We have perched on the welcome mat for two weeks, done our best to make the Chinese growth stats go back toward 12% and have learned four new kanji in Chinese.

We have dinner tonight on the 91rst floor of the Park Hyatt in their most famous restaurant where we plan to eat steaks and test their sushi chef and Chinese barbq. Then we are invited to the hotel's old Shanghai style dance hall to listen to the song girls and do a little fox trot. It could be a wild evening. Eat your heart out, Wolf Blitzer; I may have to give up our usual date time.

Once I am stateside, I will be blogging with Shopping Detective reports. Thus I will alternate between reports from the road when I travel and reports on new merchandise and fabulous or funny finds in the US when I am home.

Where ever that is.

Tang Me to the Moon


We sped through our meetings and explorations this morning so we could have a leisurely visit to the Pudong Fakes Market. Not that we condone buying of fakes or any sort of infringement of copyright, but we are scientists and know that our readers crave solid information. Inquiring minds want to know.

We had already been to the Fenshine Bldg. on Nanjing Road where three floors of alternative choices are arranged in Shenzhen style. After hearing good reports about the market in Pudong-- but way, way out in Pudong-- we decided to have a look-see.

For the last two days we had talked ourselves out of going to this market, having been told it was in a metro station and 25 minutes away from 'downtown' Pudong by taxi. Then this morning we heard that the market was not in a metro station but the basement of the Science Museum-- this classed it up enormously-- and that it was an excellent market.

Ha.

1) The market is in a metro station.
2) This is one of the worst markets I have ever been to, I would not send anyone here and I would be horrified if you didn't trust me on this.

Our taxi driver dropped us at the side of the museum. It is a gorgeous, glorious, inviting museum of modern architectural grace and strength with a bronze of the world resting on a dragon's back. From where we landed, there was no indication of the market. But we had it written in Chinese and were able to ask. Finally some very nice guy decided to accompany us and show us to the dark side. Shades of CSI all over again.

He led us up, down, around ramps, past the dragon and underground into the, yup, metro station. Then he followed us around and tried to get us to buy so he could have a commish. This was a ton of fun. The floor smelled of cat pee. Hmmm ...was that really cat?

The few vendors we tested had triple fake doors, like an accordian of possibilities behind shelves that kept folding outward to reveal more shelves of handbags. After we were locked into one cabinet, we decided to get out of Dodge.
"Open the door!" Sarah hissed at me.
"I would if I could," I shot back.

When we were free, we ran.

Deciding that a true scientist would have to return to the Fenshine market for on the spot comparison, and having wads of yuan in our pockets as we expected a final run to glory in Pudong, we caught the first taxi from the long line out of there and sped back toward PuXi. We wondered how many shoppers had run out of that market in hysterics, waving taxi cards for Fenshine.

Sarah and I have been very conservative in our shopping and I had fears that I did not have enough $10 gifts. Suddenly I was suffering Shopper's Last Day Syndrome, which can be quite upsetting.

I've found that my Five Dollar Friends now get $10 gifts because nothing is as inexpensive in China as it used to be. I had bought a few $50 gifts for my $100 friends and business associates and now worried that they didn't look expensive enough. Do the recipients of gifts from China automatically assume that said gifts cost very little moolah? Maybe it's better to just go to Tiffany & Co.? Or eBay? What would Confuscious say?

We put philosophy aside as we worked the three floors of Fenshine. Many vendors remembered us. I had regretted not buying DVD's of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics ande tried desperately to scrounge up a few copies as gifts. No luck. I must have tried ten different vendors and could only find one dealer-- this guy tried to tell me that although the cover said CLOSING CEREMONIES, this was indeed the Opening Ceremonies. He also asked 50 yuan for one DVD (going price for a foreigner is 10).

The hit of the venture was a visit to a stand that sold silk tsotchkes in the style of Shanghai Tang.
"This good stuff, lady, this real Shanghai Tang!"
The merchandise was good, the prices fair after a half hour of hard bargaining (I am exhausted) but the prices were not inexpensive. We paid just about $10 for each silk pouch for DVDs (or CDs). This will make our presentations exquisite but is not what I'd call a serious bargain.

Of course, a pair of pyjamas at Shanghai Tang cost $300, so maybe it was a bargain.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Monday Monday



Now I am alongside the GM's office at the ar Park Hyatt in Pudong. He is French and has taken me on as his assistante-- I have always been a sucker for a tall, handsome Frenchman, especially when my maternal instincts arise. Sarah and I will meet him for breakfast along with the PR director in a few moments. Shortly after that meeting, we head across the river to inspect the not-yet-open Peninsula Hotel and have lunch with the director of communications for Asia, an old friend from Beijing. Since The Pen is not even ready for a hard hat inspection (it opens in September), we are meeting Ceci at Hamilton House, one block from the Bund.

HH (as sign out front says) a terrific new restaurant designed in the 1930 Shanghai salon style with a menu that enables you to eat a main course for about $10 (at lunch)and more decor that you can photograph on one digital. Even the ladies' room is spectacular. The location is also excellent, it's on Fuzhou Street just one city block away from Suzchow Cobbler (not as great as it used to be) and a new store called Patterns where you buy clothes, fabric by the yard, koi lanterns and accessories at high prices because you are knocked out by the whimsy that makes you think of Betsey Johnson on Chinese Steroids.

We are very excited to see the new Peninsula, but will have to wait for our next visit. As it stands now, it's hard to imagine a more dramatic hotel than the Park Hyatt Pudong, the newest of three Hyatt's in Shanghai.

We drove into the new World Financial Tower entrance for the hotel around 2pm on Sunday. It was hard to even get to the driveway because of the one way streets and barricades and building blocks but once at the lip of the entrance we were stopped by guards with dogs. The car was totally searched and sniffed. Memories of Mumbai, I assumed, but was later told that no, this is jsut a high secruity area because it is the tallest building in town and people like to know they are safe.

Park Hyatt is the most upmarket of the various Hyatt brands and this hotel is the new kid on the block in terms of the many luxury hotels to have opened in Shanghai and Pudong. We passed the lots where W and also Ritz Carlton are building, so more will be coming in time for Expo 2010, but there will never be another hotel as pulled together as this one.

Entering the hotel from the GF was almost like gaining entrance of Oz or a fortress or finding Number One in the TV show The Prisoner. Glass doors automatically part, walls glide and shut, modern art laughs at you while you stare at the splendor and technology. I had been annoyed that Sofitel Hotel had charged us $50 to deliver our luggage earlier in the weekend, but once I saw what was involved in terms of security and technology at this new hotel, I decided we got a bargain.

The lobby is on the 87th floor. As you exit the elevator and turn right you are on a platform equal to the clouds and the crown of the tower of the Hyatt Regency stares out at you like the foot of King Kong or the Jewel of the Crown. We both actually gasped aloud.

To say the lobby is elegant is to say I am a tall woman, yeah, right ...and what else is new? It is gray flannel, crisp white linen, enameled ginger jars and plush textured beige chic with the merging of comfort and control. Your environment has been manipulated so that if the clouds outside don't convince you, a look around at the Architecural Digest-like room , called The Living Room, to ascertain that you are in heaven. I sound silly. You think I am over the top. I am actually just on 91rst floor.

Because I am afraid of heights, Sarah has requested a room as low as possible so we are bunked in on the 85th floor. We have a veiw of the crown of the Jin Mao Building right outside our window. I am waiting to see this view on the last page of the magazine that writes Room With a View.

The elegance of the 30 foot ceilings in our room and the stunning views to PuXi and beyond were a contrast to our weekend stay in Hangzhou where we purposefully chose the Sofitel because it is not a high-rise. There are only a handful of deluxe tourist hotels in Hangzhou and the Sofitel is known by those in the industry as the best hotel in HZ.

This is a 6-storey hotel that is not only intime, but right up against West Lake, the city's main attraction. The only thing wrong with it is that we didn't know a Starbucks was nearby until it was too late-- think of the Citymug we could have bought for Sarah's mug collection. The hotel is constructed so that one end overlooks West Lake thus each floor has either a suite, a restaurant or a function room overlooking the lake.

We had an arrivals lunch overlooking the lake while enjoying local specialities, many of which seemed to come from that lake-- lake shrimp (very white), lake fish, soup with algae from the lake, etc.

The main reason I even wanted to go to HZ was to shop the Night Market which I had heard was amazing. What can I say? Don't believe everything you hear? But you already knew that.

Before nightfall, we did daylight shopping errands-- cruising the wide downtown boulevards, passing all the department stores and checking out the two other famous markets in town: Silk Street and the Tea & Nut Market. We also came to the conclusion that we want to retire to HZ-- it's perfect: clean, modern, good shopping, little pollution and only an hour from Shanghai.

Silk Street was clean and fun but a tad boring-- the merchandise in Shanghai and Beijing is more chic and less expensive. The Tea Market was fabulous as from the front it looked like nothing, but turned out to be deep and hidden and secretive with Chinese varieties of nuts that tasted different from what we know at home. The best things in life are often hidden, eh?

HZ is also famous for its local tea, although the tea harvest (Lung Ching Dragon Well Tea-- it's a green tea) is in April-- so we were too early. Nonetheless, there was a tea tasting and selling store on the corner just past our hotel. Around the corner from that is a mall with McDonald's, Watson's (the chemist) and a Carrefour hypermarche. You can't beat that location! Should you think I am only about drug stores and supermarkets, note that HZ has its own branch of Gucci, Hermes, LV and Giorgio Armani.

The Night Market began at 6pm, before it was totally dark. It was not a large market and I found it quite disappointing. Yes, stall after stall was filled with fake handbags, but they were bad fakes. There were no silks and since this is the heart of Chinese silk production, that was really too bad. The asking price for DVD's was 5yuan, half the price in big cities-- many deals there. I bought Jay Leno a copy of Little Goat and Big Big Wolf. But I somehow refused to spend any money on the Hello Pig! merchandise, which I regret sorely.

From the Night Market, we went directly to Impression West Lake directed by Zhang Yimou, of which I have already written. (See below.) They claim this production is 'a scene in heaven and a dream on earth.' I can't disagree.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Being Koi


If you saw the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, you already know that the Chinese walk on water, on air, on moons and spheres beyond the common imagination; you know they march to the beat of a very strong drummer in hearty 4-4 time.

What most of us do not know is that the same man who created the Opening Ceremonies (Zhang Yimou) got his scrim flowing in Hang Zhou, a city one hour (by fast train) south of Shanghai and were we've chosen to weekend. Truth be told, we came for the shopping. On examination, the shopping is fine and it's fun, but you come for the waters.

HZ as I will now call it is a famous resort town; its prime attraction is a lake in the center of town. Our hotel, The Sofitel Westlake, is located at the edge of that lake and you may promenade around the lake and in short order come upon Starbucks Westlake as well as young lovers, couples with their one child and a man on a bike who sells balloons that trail behind his bike.

This lake has assorted designated tourist areas, bridges, viewing spots, boat rides, islands, swans and moveable feasts. It also has a show called Impresion Westlake, which runs from March through December. It's held on the banks of the far side of the lake, across from General Yue's tomb (in case you were looking for him) and behind KFC, alongisde a shopping arcade of ugly tourist goods offered at high prices.

The viewing is from bleachers--all outdoors-- and you can rent a down jacket from a stall next to KFC. We were bundled up and still needed the jackets as blankets. We sat in our perch (tickets are priced by location-- the $ ones are on the rail to the water's edge, the $75 tickets are raised just above that and the $30 tickets are high up) and tried what would happen as we huddled under our pashminas and watched the mostly Chinese audience fill the arena.

A large, silent sphere calmly sat out there on the water of the lake. It reminded me of Cirque du Soleil and Le Reve at The Wynn in Vegas. Water, water everyone and not a drop to drink. I wondered if a thousand clowns would jump out of the sphere and roll

The show began will Chinese script illuminated across this sphere. Peter translated it for me roughly and explained that the show was a love story to be divided into five parts: meeting, falling in love, marriage, parting and memory. As the story progressed, I tried to remember the history of the blue and white dishes (Blue Willow) we see all over England, the love story of the Chinese couple who were forbidden to wed and somehow or another got turned into birds that soar over your dinner plate or coffee mug. They neverhave topart, even in your dishwasher.

I wont ruin this for you by giving you the stroke by stoke, I will just let you remember the Opening Ceremonies, and consider the love story and trust me to know when I have seen magic.

Know that I have seen a man in a white Chinese robe walk on water and pursue a girl in a pink gown with a green parasol as she sailed by in a tiny boat.
I have seen them skip across the water and watched a thousand colored lights shimmer from inside puppets that represented soaring koi, that danced as they courted.
Ihave seen lights become golden drums and seen the trees on the shoreline turn pink and then green and seen a hundred drummers beat water across a lake in the steady movement that would have powered Ben Hur through battle.

I have seen one of the wonders of the world and it is China.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hang Ten


We are off to Hang zhou which we have nick-named Hang ten. My Chinese is so good that anyone who could hear me thught I was saying Hongqaio instead of Hangzhou and needed a ride to the domestic airport...which is not the case.

Benefits of a new day dawning:
*gorgeous sunshine and blue skies in Shanghai, no more rain
* real croissants at a French hotel
* ability to walk out of hotel to go with the Chans to the train and send the luggage to the Park Hyatt for only $50 USD.

And the day is just beginning. On y va.

Spinning Tales


Our big adventure for today was to compare two different fabric markets in Shanghai. We had such fond memories of what's called The South Bund Spinning Mart that we couldn't wait to go back.

The return to Spinning could not be moved forward in our explorations of town because I was skedded to return to another fabric market we had visited on our first day here. Since the two seemed to be nearby, it made sense to wait and kill two spinning wheels with one taxi. As the name indicates, the South Bund area is very far south and quite away off-base for the average tourist. It is also in the midst of the area along the river that is dedicated to Expo 2010.

Many hotel taxi cards-- the giveaway that lists addresses in English and Chinese so you can communicate with your taxi driver--list both of the fabric markets, what I will now call Market #1 and Market #2, The South Bund Spinning Mart. Since each hotel has its own personal list on its card, some of the ones we checked only listed the Spinning Mart. Indeed, even according to the Internet, Spinning is the go-to place for silk, wool, linen, bedding and tailors.

We were bogged down in Friday afternoon + Expo 2010 construction traffic jams for almost an hour and found our favorite market to be, uh, disgusting. It was crammed, jammed, not filthy but not pleasant. It was filled with an international galaxy of tourists (all probably with taxi cards in their coat pockets) ; the vendors refused to negotiate. Asking prices were high and atitude was bad. We circled each floor and decided we hated the place.

It only took ten minutes to get the the other market, Market #1, which is actually located on another planet. This market is for locals and has no tourists. Called the Shiliupu Clothing Material Market, it is smaller than the Spinning Mart and much, much closer to downtown PuXi. The aisles are wide, the vendors are friendly, even when they insult you.

Example: I tried to bargain on the price of a jacket I was having made. I'd already had one jacket made and now was giving them more business, so I attempted to make a deal.
"Are you kidding?" asked the tailor, with indignation. " You are already the size of a man and I gave you the woman's price. You cost me a fortune in fabric!"

For about $30 each, I had two Mao style jackets made from embroidered silk. Sarah finally sprang for one jacket, after I nagged her to the jacket edge. I think it's the first thing she's bought for herself on the whole trip. If I had somewhere to wear these jackets, or could afford the dry cleaning, I would have bought one in every shade available-- three or four different shades of red, a black with dark purple embroidery, various hues of blues and a coral that was so Palm Beach I wanted it instantly. I still regret not buying it, but Sarah insisted it looked like a bathrobe.

Instead I was practical and bought an aubergine and a black. I splurged an extra ten bucks for a hot pink clutch to grasp under my arm with the aubergine jacket. Sarah bought beige. I will undoubtedly be the chicest woman at the HEB grocery store in San Antonio this summer.

At another stall, I spent $5 a meter for linen. I got cranberry to go with the aubergine. I hope to make a pair of baggy trousers and pray that two meters will cover my butt. There were various silks that would have been stunning with the jacket I had made, but alas, they are not wearing silk suits at the HEB this year.

I was very tempted by yet another vendor -- the guy on the second floor to the slight-right of the escalator (when you ascend to the 2F) who had the best stack of linen wound in tight bolts of sherbert colors just heaped under florescent light. I think in China it is acceptable manners to drool on fabric. I couldn't figure out which shades to pick. For $30 he makes a linen Shanghai Tang style jacket with contrast sleeve and collar linings... and frogs.

Since we have moved to the Sofitel Hyland Hotel -- one of my regular haunts in Shanghai--and we head out tomorrow for the Sofitel in Hangzhou... and since I cannot get the colors of those linens out of my mind's eye, I will have to go to sleep dreaming of frogs.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Eye for an Eye


As I sit in the Ritz-Carlton business center on top of one of the zillions of modern towers in central Shanghai, I look out at thick fog and wonder if some boogeyman will jump into the galss surrounds to remind me it is Friday the 13th and you can't really get away with a 'Marc Jacobs' handbag for $30. Now there's a horror movie in the making...

The rain has stopped, thankfully, but yesterday was a dreary winter day with relentless wet. Peter Chan spent the day with us as translator and cultural advisor; his driver -- who did not have a Western name so we have called him Jim-- was able to get us in and out of many markets and shops with relative ease considering what a mess this city becomes in a downpour. We're told that in weather such as yesterday's, it is impossible to find a taxi so that if you get one, you keep him and pay him to wait for you, or you stay in your hotel to watch those DVD's you've already bought for $1.50 each.

Since I am strongest in mornings, I chose the most difficult task first-- it was much like an assignment from The Amazing Race. Sarah had clipped an article about an underground eyeglasses mart located between subway stations where the river meets the sea and the clouds hang low and the tree is crooked when the moon is bright. Yes, it was something like the treasure map in that movie Romancing The Stone. We eventually gave up looking for the mart as described in the article when we found an above ground, modern, clean building called International Eyeglasses Mart, on the north side of the Shanghai Railway Station.

Since Peter and Jim are native speakers, we were even able to learn that the market we were looking for was demolished (welcome to China) and all the vendors had moved in here. And what a place it was-- three floors of the latest technology, frames and contact lens products.

The article in hand had given us a clear idea of price, so we were able to bargain our lens+frame packages down to about $18 a pair. Unfortunately, I did not have the progressive Rx with me so could not do a comparison on how long or how much for a complicated pair of glasses. Instead we just drooled at the cases and wandered the aisles where women would call out to us like barkers at the carnival.

Designer frames, or should I say 'designer' frames, were invariably put away in hiden drawers or tacklebox cases with trays that lifted up and out. Mikli, Chanel, Armani, RayBan, yes...even Toyota. Hey, I just report the news, I don't make it up. But considering what's happening in Detroit these days, perhaps the big three automakers should re-tool. Put your face in a Ford ...and all that. Really See the USA from Your Chevrolet...

The best part of the adventure, and having a translator with, came when I tried on my glasses and found them fuzzy. They weren't really, truly, horribly wrong, but I decided to open my big American mouth and say they wouldn't do. I gave the glasses I was wearing to the technician for inspection in the machine and comparison to the hew glasses. Here's what happened.
* They had taken my Rx acurately from my existing glasses.
* The numbers did not makes sense to them, so they decided an error had been made and changed the positive to a negative and made up the lenses.
* When I put on the glasses, they weren't right. It was explained to me that the optometrists had never before seen a script with a negative in one eye and a positive in the other. I asked Peter to explain to them that I had LASIK and mono-vision!
* The moral of this story, don't buy glasses for other people who are not with you and cannot try them on if they have tricky eye balls.

While we waited the required one hour for all 6 pairs of glasses we ordered (hey, don't look at me...there were 4 of us in this project), we went to McDo next door. Jim ran back to get our glasses-- each of these pairs was perfect.

Then we headed for Fenshine, on Nanjing Road, a seemingly regular old, upscale office tower at a good address that turns out to be the new venue for the fakes market in town. The old outdoor market was demolished about two years ago. This market is about four floors of the usual but has enough twists to offer a different, and very entertaining experience. And a $30 Marc Jacobs handbag similar to the one I bought my friend Dinny for $50 in Shenzhen last year.

For the first time in my years of doing this, I found Rosetta Stone CD's. I have long wanted to try this system of study for foreign languages but I have a bad ear, I always say I will study and then I don't and most importantly, who am I kidding...do I really think I can learn how to speak Chinese? After fierce bargaining I got French, Italian, Mandarin and Adobe Fotoshop for $30. Total.

The handbag stalls also offered surprises. Each one seems to have a fake rear wall, so you have to be invited into the inner sanctum (which in one stall actually locked with a loud metallic click behind us) where the best goods are stashed. The shelves are filled with LV, Chanel, Loewe, Balenciaga, DG, etc. Mulberry is having a very big season in China-- I had already bought Dinny a Mulberry in Beijing for about $100. Prices here were slightly less if you bargained fiercely. Sorry Dinny, I didn't know.

Our final stop for the day was the HQ of a designer named Lilly who makes upmarket bags, wallets and gifty items that usually sell in hotel gift shops for US-style prices. She has an apartment, considered the mother ship, not too far from the Ritz Carlton where you can knock three times and whisper low and come to shop. We left in short order-- prices were outrageously high: an adorably chic jade dingle dangle to add to your handbag strap cost more than my Marc Jacobs bag.
{Note: At the Mitsokoshi store in the Okura Garden Hotel there was a lot of Lilly merhandise-- all of it fabulous!)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Transchina Heartbreak


This all started a very long time ago, maybe around 1990. It was my frist trip to the PRC and it was a government invite, the only way a journalist could come to China in those days. The group was going to several cities in China but I only needed Beijing and Shanghai for my work. Besides, in those days, China restricted intra-Chinese flights to their own carriers. Enough said about them.

I decided to take the overnight train. Afterall, I had a young son who needed me. I couldnt find too much research on it at the time, but I read Paul Theroux, packed my Cup 'o' Soup and tin mug and climbed onboard. It was so succesful that I have been making this commute on a regular basis. Each trip the trains get fancier and cleaner and more Western, so it was real shock that last night's train was dirty to the point of disgusting...and I am not a clean freak.

Sarah was so disgusted with the whole thing that she refused to take off her clothes and covered her hands with Clean Wipes which she used as mitts when she climbed into her upper berth. I said a grateful prayer that Doctor Clean was not with me, changed my clothes, snuggled into the covers and read my Kindle. I did think that if I had any of my usual night time urges I would use the waste paper basket, but when the time came, at 1:32AM, I just trudged down the hall in my WalMart LOVE, SLEEP, SHOP nightshirt and held my breath while I assumed the position my mother taught me was proper for situations such as this.

We had made careful arrangments with the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai for a platform pickup, having provided our car and cabin numbers. We were nested into Cabin 10 and were dismayed when on arrival the train hostess insisted we depart through Car 11. As we exited, we saw a police ring around Car 10 and were told to move along smartly. Thankfully we were then discovered by our two bellboys and brought to the loving arms of the Ritz-Carlton. I am certain The Fugitive was in our car, smoking Galouises and parading up and down the compartment in his Speedo-like undershorts. IT was not a pretty sight and we hoped he was put away for a long time.

This hotel has changed enormously since I was here last-- a total renovation. Thank God the Starbucks is still here... although the grocery store and the Watson's (Hong Kong based drug store) are both gone. There is a California Pizza Kitchen and a Haagen Daz, which I thought had the makings of a fine dinner tonight.

We've been upgraded to an amazing suite and spent time dis-infecting ourselves after the train ride before contacting Peter Chan, Asia Regional Editor of Born to Shop. In short order we were in the Barbie Store (I do not know what all the fuss is about, really, why are Sarah and I the only reporters in the world who will admit when the Emperor has no Clothes?) and then to the fabric market and finally on a street lined with DVD shops. It doesn't get much better than this! Upstairs over one of the movie stores is the TaiPan Foot Massage salon; we took their card so we can make a return test.

While the DVD store in Beijing were hidden much like speakeasies in old movies, this street is not only out in the open but in one of the most charming streets in town, in a high rent residential district around the corner from the Four Seasons Hotel. Modern high-rise apartment buildings reach out of several storefronts while the street is clean and wide, with deep sidewalks and bicycle racks. It's much like a European neighborhood but with signs in Chinese.

There are many small restaurants-- all clean and inviting, a few hairdressers and massage treatment salons and then perhaps half a dozen stores with names like BIG MOVIE and MOVIE HOUSE. There are fixed prices-- regular DVDs cost 7 yuan (10 in Beijing) and DVD super-9 movies cost 12 yuan. Even more amazing is the selection-- international in scope (US, UK, Chinese, Hong Kongese, German, French, Italian, Korean, etc.) and then the range, from kiddie to docu to classicals. Some stores organize the wares by director or actor. I could not find any porn. I did find Mozart.

Technologically speaking, we are not 100% certain these movies and CDs will play in Peoria. I have a Chinese DVD player in both of my homes (US and France), but for readers who may not have such an item, there could be wasted time and money in this project. To say nothing of the risk of US Customs confiscations. Yet each store we visited swore their product would play in any zone in the world. If you wnat a Chinese DVD player, just head over to Lotus Centre in Pudong-- they are small, easy to pack and legal to bring into USA.

This subject is so dear to our hearts that in some cases, we have bought multiple copies of the same movie from a variety of shops because,well, we are scientists-- remember?

Tonight Sarah and I will have dinner with Peter and Louisa Chan. They have chosen Cantonese. So much for the pizza and ice cream idea.

Monday, March 9, 2009

To The Cube, Dude


Yesterday morning Sarah and I packed up and left the civilization of the main core of Beijing behind and headed out to the Olympic Site. As you know from watching TV, there are numerous sites all over town, but the main one with Bird's Nest, Water Cube, etc. is also home to the newest member of the InterContinental Hotels family and we booked ourselves in.

It couldn't have been more brilliant planning (even if accidental) as the Great Wall at Badaling is not that far from the hotel, so we were able to drop off our luggage and then whizz off past the Summer Palace, a few more Olympics venues and right onto the Badaling Expressway. Monday was also a good choice since there was no traffic. In less than an hour, we were at the Starbucks at the Great Wall.

I swear it. Tall mocha, no foam, 24 RMB ($4).

Things out there at Badaling are much changed since I was there last, so I was glad to go again and be able to report on it for BTS. Everything is clean and spiffy and perfect-- the big antiques shop is gone and while there are numerous stalls, the ones that ring the parking lot are pretty much the same. As you walk from the lot up to the entrance, there's a string of more shops (and Starbucks) that are far more interesting... including the Badaling Hotel Coffee Shop which is sort of a mini-Freindship store and a great place for over-priced souvenirs.

Mostly we went for the foto op-- Sarah and I wearing our caps at the Great Wall. Turns out all my preparations were silly-- there are at least three dozen stands selling hats here (department of silly hats must have HQ here) and the selection is far superior to anything i brought with-- fur hats with red stars on them, princess caps, panda heads, etc. Although we did find some British girls to take our picture on the Wall, the baseball caps I brought with cast shadows over our faces and the foto will not win any prizes, even in our scrapbooks. Thankfully, we got good shots at Starbucks.

But enough about us.

The true story of the day is the InterConti Beichen, so named for the intersection where it is located in north central Beijing. This is a staggeringly 'hot' hotel in the sense of being hip, so very Wallpaper Magazine. The hotel elevator reads your smart card key, not just for security as we've all seen before, but to get the floor for you.

Once in the hallway, we pass the central atrium (one atrium per every three floors) which is strung with blue neon bleepy lights like cerulean fireflies, strung on filament to fill the space and amaze you with the reminder of the contemporary art scene in Beijing.

Our room was booked as 'room with a view' which in many cities means historical or natural views. In this case, we have the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube, the TV Tower and five or six other landmark buildings right out our window. At night they are lit with different hues and you can stand at the window and realize that watching the Eiffel Tower blink on the hour is very fine, but this ain't bad!

Since the hotel has no shopping in it (not even a gift or sundries shop), we hopped into a taxi for a two minute drive and $2 fare to the nearby malls where every chain is well represented as are a variety of fast food joints.

We chose to go to the North Star Supermarket, inside the North Star Plaza, a luxury mall. We grabbed a shopping cart with its own flat video screen and stereo sound system and began to prowl the aisles. Sarah is technical enough (evenin Chinese!) to be able to figure out the screen and soon had a map of the store loaded in. Every time the cart began to talk to me I starred at it, trying to will it to speak English.

We only bought a few things-- mostly gifts-- but I did find a tube of snake gall cream for Jay Leno. All of gall may be divided into three parts, but I only bought two tubes. I did load up on my toothpaste ; Sarah sprang for the Crest Jasmine that she has used before. In some cases, I bought items just based on the packaging. I did not do my usual haul, partly because I am trying to reform but mostly because we still have to schlep our luggage onto the train to Shanghai. Our time for Girls Gone Wild in the Supermarket is coming up later in the week.

Because of the grandeur of the room, and its view, and the fact that you can soak in the giant bathtub and look out at the Water Cube, we chose a room service dinner and spent a lot of the evening being blue as we watched the sunset toward the Summer Palace and the Water Cube go from pearly white to pale blue to bright blue.

I'd rather be blue thinking of you than be hap-hap-happy with somebody new.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Duck Soup


Have you ever sat through a movie or a TV show when the heroine does something really stupid and then (bien sur) ends up dead...and you say to yourself , with more disdain than sympathy, "how could she have been so stupid as to do that?"... well, we had our CSI moment last night after dinner at the Big Duck.

As true foodies and social scientists, Sarah and I needed to know the difference between our favorite Big Duck and the one we had visited on our first night in town. Heretofore I had only been to the original big duck, off Tianemen and even brought a group of vegetarians there once-- it was quite the place and I have always adored it.

To get out the door on the proper foot, we go to the concierge desk to have a taxi card written in Chinese; me explaining we want the Tainemen branch ...as these ducks are like rabbits, they multiply and after our so-so meal at Duck #1, we wanted the best duck money could buy or memory could serve.

Concierge looked it up on computer and wrote some chicken scratchings on the taxi card and then, as a good concierge, gave me a verbal run down of what to expect. From this description I knew we had a missed web connection. Sarah was able to produce a BORN TO SHOP guide from her handbag and then the concierge got it right. I won't make any comments here, you get my drift. I have been coming to Beijing regulalry over a period of 20 years. What about the next guy?

The taxi driver refused to take us to our written address because he swore this Big Duck had been torn down. It took 20 minutes of back and forth with doormen and concierge before he would depart. This sport really works up an appetite and we were glad the restruant was only about a mile away.

The taxi flag falls at 10y (about $1.40) and clicks slowly, so drivers make it a habit of exploring the new highways of Beijing for their personal wealth enhancement. Even when you know what's happening, what can you say! Although the restaurant was walking distance from the hotel, we went on two highways, came back around from the south and could have been in Xi'an before we got there. Then, the nerve of this guy, he drops us in the middle of a traffic circle and tells us to walk.

As pissed off as we were, I knew enough about where we were going to lead us in the approximate direction. Alas, every scrap of this perfectly nice slum had been destroyed and we faced a Disney perfect Main Street in 1800 China.
"Are we in time for the Electric Parade?" Sarah asked me.

The main street is made more aodrable by the fact that 98% of the storefronts are empty. Why trash them up with merchandise in a bad economy???

We ate our duck-- this duck was indeed better than the other. We agreed that the Big Duck although having been totally remodeled and turned clean and perfect still has a lot of charm. We accepted with pride the certificate of our duck's name and number-- has someone been to La Tour d' Argent lately? We noted that we were the only qweilos there for Sunday Duck Dinner. The family at the big round table next to us demanded their duck's carcass in a take away sack, which was quickly provided. I just wonder if that's called a duckie bag?

As we rolled out, fat and giggling, we noticed the LCD screens flashing messages in Chinese. This is a big trend in fashion and in advertising here so we could only suspect that all the live ducks in the basement of the building were texting out for help. We wondered what SOS was in Chinese.

With the new road barriers everwhere, it is impossible to get into the street to grab a taxi. In fact, it's clear why the chicken crossed the road here. We walked and walked while I lamented the loss of pedicabs in the area and wondered if Chinese unemployment figures registered the death of this trade. Then, from nowhere, like in an episode of Twight Zone, a lone pedicab appeared and beckoned us to join him. We gave him the taxi card for The Peninsula, agreed on a price, turned away from his alcohol drenched breath and hopped onboard.

We congratulated ourselves on a delicious end to the evening and that at least we didn't have a taxi driver to give us the run around or loop us all over extra Ring Roads. The moon was almost full, the air was mild, we were two very smart ducklings.

And then the driver took off, away from the main road and all civilization-- possibly searching for a Ring Road. We ended up in a back alley, wondering if our insurance policies paid double indemnity for kidnapping and death by pedicab. I left my phone at the hotel; Sarah's phone was dead. We did not know SOS in Chinese. We considered prayer. We wondered if Jerry Bruckheim would use our story in the Chinese CSI pilot.

And just as suddenly as we were in dnager, we were saved. With a huff and a puff, our wino said we were there and demanded his money. Sarah actually told me she didn't think we should pay him the whole thing since we weren't even half way home. I figured we were alive and the total sum he wanted was $5.

We crossed the street, hailed a cab and were soon safely back at The Pen. Why a duck, I asked myself as I fell asleep, Why a Duck?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Badda-Bing, I mean Ling


Yeah, yeah, yeah-- it's true: another day, anoher yuan and we are still without the Great Wall. Another gorgeous spring Beijing day and we still didn't get there.

Seems that last night I had a total freak out with all the updates to Born to Shop China and decided that the Wall would be crowded on a Sunday and we had more important things to shop...so the driver is booked for 10AM tomorrow. And to show how serious I am, I have bought the hats for the foto op. No, I didn't go with the Chairman Mao olive green with red star-- that was just too hokey, even for me.

We investigated taking a car and driver from the hotel (The Pen) to The Wall, but the standard price (for an Audi, not a Rolls) was $500, which frankly my dear, was too damn much. When I saw the work load for today, and had already digested the price of a car and driver through the hotel, I got the doorman to find us a taxi driver and make a deal-- this cost about $125. HIs name is Mr. Li (what a surprise) and his first name is Gang. So counting me, Sarah and the driver we are our own Gang of Three.

He will take us to Badaling tomorrow for the same price, and I do have his phone number...somewhere.

I have become obsessed with this business of the car and driver to the Wall and plan to check the price from every decent hotel in Beijing. I already know they throw in the Ming Tombs for free and you can't trade down on the price by wiggling out of the Tombs. They also make a pit stop at a tourist joint on the road where you are expected to eat, shop and pee. Even if you pee less, you still have to pay a lot of money to do this with any style.

So we gve up on style, jumped into our Hyundai (like Sunday) taxi and despite the huge list of addresses and the wonderful driver (not one word of English), we mostly spent an unglam day schlepping around Ring Roads and looking at what's new in town. That often meant telephoning stores for their addresses or driving by just to discover they've already been torn down. And these were the new listings. But I feel quite self-righteous about having done my job and we did sneak in a few return trips to our favorite markets.

And so I managed to learn just a few things today:
* The toilets in McDonald's have pictograms to advise which stall is for sitting and which is for squatting. (Could I make this up?) If you have ever wondered what's behind the green door, now you know.
* The woman selling the 'Bottega Veneta' wallet yesterday did indeed remember me. I had offered 100 and she said 120 and so I walked. In my insomnia in thenight, I realized I'd given up a great gift item over a $3 fight. Was I insane? When I returned, the vendeuse clearly remembered the negotiations-- she swears I had agreed to 140. I have never had this happen before.
* Sephora brand eye shadow costs about $13 per unit at the Joy City mall here. The $1.50 MAC brand eye shadow I bought a few days ago seems to work just as well-- no allergic reactions. Don't these guys know the Big Vat in the Sky theory ... or that in recession people want fake anything if it saves money?
* The executive lounge in the Hilton Wangfujing has Coke Zero; the lounge in The Pen does not.
* ATM's may be locked away in glass encased kiosks alongside bank buildings, much as in the US. Even though you probably do not have an account with Bank of Beijing, try your Visa card at the door anyway. It worked for us! Besides, is there a Downey Savings Bank any where in Beijing, I ask you?
* No, WuMart is not WalMart, but does look much like it.

And now it's time for our afternoon movie. Tomorrow morning we send the luggage off to the Olympic Stadium and Water Cube for our final venue in Beijing and here out to the Wall. Enfin.

Confessions from the 7-11


So before I begin the round-up, I confess that I do read this sucker before I post it and I think that I have fixed all the typos. Spelling is something I can't do too much about, but typos I try to grab. The problem with proof-reading your own work is that you read what you thought you wrote, not what's on the page (or screen)-- so accept apologies for typos as well as bad spelling.
With six you get eggroll.

We have decided that Sunday is the day for the Great Wall, so today we did some of the important things. First stop was the Eye Glasses Mart. The address written in my latest edition of Born to Shop was in pinyan so even the concierge at the Hilton couldn't quite figure out what I needed when I asked for a taxi card. It took a huddle of three doormen to get the taxi driver calm enough to take off...and this only after I assured everyone I knew where I was going and could give directions. (Anyone wanna buy a bridge?)

This is not a total lie, but this part of Beijing has been enormously built up in the year and a half since I was here last, so it was fascinating to see what had once been badlands now turned into middle class housing with a village feel. I guess it takes an Olympics to make a village.

We sped out the Third Ring Road and were indeed able to find the building in question. Of course by the time we spotted it, the taxi was in the middle lane of hurtling traffic without an exit in sight. This did not bother him at all (welcome to China). He just pulled over to the median, asked for some money and sent us on our way. We dodged a few buses and some Skodas and learned why the chicken crossed the road (to get to the Eye Glasses Mart).

Saturday shoppers were scurrying all around us, abuzz with their errands and fits of Spring Fever. The weather has been very mild so the sidwalks were crammed with shoppers. Since we know the Eye Mart fairly well, we jsut returned to one of the shops where I had done business before and knew they spoke a form of Chinglish.

Sarah chose three pairs of glasses for one of her daughters for a total of about $100. I also spent $100, but on one pair of glasses with progressive lenses and tri-focal input as well as snap on sunshadess fitted to the brushed titanium frames. Sarah's order could have been completed in an hour but mine was more complicated so we agreed to return tomorrow morning. The clerk took a foto of what I bought with my telephone, but I can't figure out how to attach it.

The Eye Glasses Mart is conveniently located around the corner from the famous Dirt Market. There has always been some controversy with my Born to Shop readers who argue with me that this market is only on Sundays when I have visited on Saturdays and Sundays and so stated in my pages. In front of the market today was a large sign that said (in English) that the market is now open daily. I will try to get back there mid-week to see what it looks like. Meanwhile, it was business as usual in possibly the only shopping destination you ever need to visit in Beijing.

This market is so terribly cleaned up that a lot of the fun has been taken away... thankfully the vendors still cough in your face and frequently spit on the ground, so you know you are still in China. The guys who used to be in the dirt (hence the name) are now neatly lined up against walls on the perimeter of the market; an entirely new section has been set up next to the carpark on what would be your right hand side when you enter (the wall huggers are to the left, as they have always been). Additionally, two new hangars of large furniture have opened up and even a few food joints, although I didn't fall for the good duck. There is even a shipping agent.

I don't think I bought anything or if I did, I don't remember and it explains what was in the black plastic bag I can't find. (I'd swear I had two black plastic bags, but ended up back at the hotel with only one). The merchandise is yummy but my own home already looks like one of the market stalls, so I was fairly restrained with my yuan.

In order to catch a taxi to our next destination, we had to hop over barriers in the middle of the road in front of the market entrance and flag down a cab headed in the 'wrong' direction. These new white barriers -- almsot like picket fences--are all over town and possibly were part of The Games. At the sound of a gunshot, I hurdle and sprint.

We sped off to Silk Alley.

Silk Alley is an indoor mall that has replaced the old street market by the same name. The street market was a lot of fun; I have hated this new building and only returned there today because it's my job. (Hey, someone has to do it.) Imagine my surprise to fall in love. OK, I'm easy but this place was stuffed to the rafters with four legged Polo ponies and more jade than Mick Jaegger ever imagined.

This market, much like Ya Show but larger and more crowded, had much better quality in all merchandise. I was actually charmed by a 'Mulberry' handbag, asking price 950 yuan. Since I never buy anything I don't need, I kept walking.

For purposes of comparison only, I was compelled to make a few purchases at the market's name-less DVD shop. This time the English DVD's were through a clothing store behind the full length mirror inside the dressing room. Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice. Here the movies were 10 yuan DVD's and 12 yuan. The high cost product is super 9 or something like that. I bought several just to test them against yesterday's purchases. Science is in my genes.

Exhausted, we checked into The Pen where the VIP service in our room included a tray of chocolates accompanied by chocolate chop sticks! Now if I can jsut get my hands on a chocolate Prada handbag, I'll be all set.

With the realization that this hotel gave us chocolates but no water, we went to the nearby convenience store. I bought the usual necessities-- crisps, bottled water, packet of 5-spice and, here comes the confession part, three tubes of toothpaste. I know that I swore I would never buy toothpaste in China, but I found a shelf filled with my favorite bamboo salt toothpaste that I normally buy in Hanoi and couldn't resist. I jsut hope Ilive long enough to be a hypocrite.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Up Against the Wall


The sky is bright and sunny, somehow it is a Saturday here (not in my head or body) and we are considering a trip to The Great Wall of China, which I have disdainfully called The Great Mall of China ever since my first visit there.

Sarah has never been and I haven't been in a number of years...so today could be the day. I am just trying to reason out if weekend crowds will be overwhelming or if the weather will hold til Monday, or, for that matter, are Walls closed on Mondays? Or perhaps they open after lunch on Mondays, as they would if they were in Italy? We really need to get to The Dirt Market and the Eye Glasses Factory before we go up against the wall.

Having just begun this format, I have already discovered that you probably aren't interested in as many of the little details of local color I have noted in my Clairefontaine French shcoolgirl notebook. I have therefore decided to go more toward information to update on changes, express cultural curiosities or help out the newbie who may not quite be the Old China Hand that I am.

Naturally, we are here to revise Born to Shop China, which will be in bookstores and Kindles everywhere by 2010 in time for the Shanghai World Expo, but if you hit the road before then, perhaps my observations will help out.

It is Saturday morning now; Sarah is packing to get us ready to move to the next hotel, I am sipping a Coke Zero (this Hilton Beijing Wangfujing is obviously the height of civiliazation as they seem to have the only Coke Zero [and in cans...an important item to those raised in the US Public Health Service] in Beijing) and will write about yesterdays' revelations so that by this evening I can plug in today's adventures and be on a one to one schedule-- more or less.

Sarah bought one of those little netbooks for our travels but we've had a lot of trouble getting google anything on it, so I am not certain if I will be able to blog from the overnight train. As i remind myself each morning: one day at a time. Today is yesterday for educational purposes. The train in China stays mainly on the track.

Before I get into the blow by blow or even the show by show of the shopping and the retail scene, I need to spend a few words talking about this hotel, which I conisder the major discovery of the trip so far. It had enough rooms open in August to accept Olympic travellers ,but the truth is the hotel does not have its formal opening until the end of April and won't really be in full swing -- attached mall open to shoppers-- until September '09. This means that there are preview rates in the Hilton system and I suggest you jump onto them.

I have followed Hilton for a number of years, partly because a personal friend was CEO and another friend was a Hilton GM. I covered the opening of the Hilton Arc de Triomphe for the LA Times as well as Born to Shop because it was such a departure from the typical Hilton Hotel we think we know and loathe. That hotel, a stunner created by Jacques Garcia in an art-deco mode taken from the design archives of Jean-Emile Ruhlmann, is as grand as any opera setting and as startling as anything Hilton might do to convince you the old big box hotel theme is dead.

Next comes the Asian group of hotels; this being the flagship. As everyone knows, Wangfujing is the main pedestrain walking and shopping street int he center of 'downtown'. The Forbidden City lies and one end and you are smack dab in the center of town. I have always considered this the best location in town, anchored by The Grand Hyatt at one end (closer to Forbidden City) and The Peninsula Beijing, a few blocks north.

Now, like a magic act, Hilton has taken the space on Wangfujing half a block from the Pen. Because there are now two HIltons in Beijing, this one is specifically named Hilton Beijing Wnagfujing. On the further side of The Pen, both The Regent and The Legende (that's a whole other story, beleive me) have taken root, but for those who want the best shopping access and the place closest to the action-- Hilton BJW (that's short for Beijing Wangfujing)has it nailed: a perfect 10.

There is a four story mall, the Macau Centre, that will open filled with trendy retail (they tell me) in the fall. As for now, the hotel runs much like a boutique hotel with a warm contemporary decor and many luxuries that you would never associate with an old fashioned Hilton.

There is a Portuguese restaurant (Vasco) as well as Chinese (Chynna) which is very representative of the contemporary art feeling in the new China. The food is good, but you go there as much for the combination of modest price and stunning Shanghai Tang twisted decor. If I could steal a set of the hot orange and gold patterned dinner plates, they would already be in the room. ..or my luggage.

There is an especially trained wine sommelier who teaches you how to pair wines-- Old and New World-- with Chinese cuisine. This is more interesting as the world spins, as it seems as the white with chicken and red with beef notion goes right over The Wall.

We spent our first morning in jetlag stupor exploring the hotel-- wishing we had brought bathing suits for the amazing swimming pool. After examing the hotel, we went onto Wangfujing to find our old faithfuls. Sarah collects City Mugs from Starbucks, so we went to the APM Mall next door to get a new Beijing mug. If you know who made off with her old Beijing mug, please write anonymously. We ate lunch at the McDo in that mall where I could indluge in spicy fried chicken wings, a delicacy only available in Asian venues.

Only then were we strong enough to pop a taxi to Ya Show (this makes me think of Ed Sullivan ' Well folks, we've got a very Ya Shew for you tonight') which is a market of items of, uh, questionable provenance. I call it The Bowling Alley because of the size and structure of the building.

Before entering by the well marked front door, we head around the building on the left hand side and go to the last storefront in the strip. (It has no name.) Years ago this was a great secret place for CD and DVD purchases. In the last few years, perhaps for legal resons, things are more complicated.

You say "Do you have any DVD's in English?" and a Chinese hand motions to a back door with a bearly perceptible flick of the wrist. You pass around the back innards of the market itself, down halls, turn left and, knock three times and whisper low. And there is DVD nirvana. The going price is 10 yuan (this is high , but then, I vouch for the quality here) per DVD and if you buy over a dozen, you will get a 20% discount.

The house specialty is actually boxed sets, which can be pricey and very heavy. These guys spend a lot more on packaging than on products, which is also terrifying. But, never mind. I promsied a friend an Acadmey Award birthday celebration and scarfed up the DVD's to the best picture nominations and a few for best actor/actress.

The DVDs are quite cute in their cello wrap and printed materials, but unfortauntely I will habve to undress them and slip them into a CD case for transport to the birthday guy. I am buying very few movies since my son disapproves of the very notion. And beleive me, morality aside, and without serious though to intellectual property rights, I want to tell you that last night's movie-- Valkyrie-- wasn't one I care to bring back to the US. I read the bad reviews, but I still very much wanted to see this movie. I can only thank Buddha that I did not waste my $6.50 early-bird senior discount at the Regency Cineplex. Or to be more precise, I am $5 ahead and Sarah got a free ride.

So I only bought a few discs and then we tackled the market which used to be one of the best places for, uh, alternative merchandise. These days most everything was junk, the sales people were beyond aggressive and the only thing amusing aobut this as a shopping adventure is that I have seemingly graduated from being called "missy, missy' to the title of 'auntie' or even 'dear auntie'. Take that, Mame.

For the msot part, the quality of all items surveyed was so bad that you wouldnt even want these things as a joke gift...and the maount of time spent negotiating and waiting for merchanidse to be brought out from under stairwells or ceiling tiles or a 'cousin' upstairs is annoying.

The most exciting object I bought was something I do not know how to name or explain very well. It is an LCD digital plague that comes in belt buckle, jewelry lavalier or brooch format and can be programed to say whatever you want. Asking price was close to $50 USD (400 yuan), but I got it for $15. It's my theory that most everything can be had for 100 yuan...about $15. This is a totally stupid novelty item, but I fell hard for it and know I will wake up one day soon, so very sorry I didn't buy more.

The jetlag was getting us down, so we took a taxi over to The Pearl Market, across town-- we hoped the energy and good buys here would revive us. The taxi gave us the Beijing Run-Around and while I know my way around fairly well, the city has so many new roads and Olympics Clean Up Schemes that old landmarks and roadways are hard to find. And like what was I going to tell the bastard, anyway?

The Pearl Market is so cleaned-up that you could almost mistake it for the Temple of Heaven across the street. And to a serious shopper, well, need I say more? More shocking, there is a brand new one, almost identical to the original, next door. So this is now a trio of fun shopping-- the two makrets wth the Toy Market triangulated in the rear.

Business must be very bad as the phsyical assaults were more dramtic than ever and in two cases, I feared bruising where my arms were gripped and stretched. Even for me, it was very unpleasant. Nonetheless, I was able to beat back the jetlag enough to buy my niece a Chanel lipstick ($5), two MAC eyeshadows for myself ($1.50 each), a NARS blusher and a few beauty supplies.

Sarah did far more adventurous work, scoring some Chanel J-12 ceramic watches for her team at home. I bought the $15, enamel version as a gift for a friend in London. Sarah reminded me that this format chips within a month and that I will have a hell of a time getting it into the UK for my girlfriend. Sheesh, every good deed has a price.

We ended our day at the Small Big Duck-- this the Wangfujing brand of the Ti'annamen Square famous roast duck restaurant. It wasn't as charming (this means it was fairly clean) nor was the duck as flavorful. We will confirm this by eating at our regular, much beloved Big Duck later in the week.

The highlight of the experience was the introduction of a plate of freshly sliced duck fat from our boy's back which was laid out on a platter to which the hostess sprinked heaps of white granulated sugar. I have never seen this done, nor tasted it. Sarah was disgusted with one bite. This meant I got to eat the rest of it.

Just don't tell Dr. Salzman as I promised her I was watching my cholesterol.

Total purchases for the day:
* 10 DVD's at $1.50 each; one already discarded. (And then there were none.)
* 4 'antique' calligraphy paint brushes, $10 each-- this down fromt he $30-50 I have been paying for similar brushes in Hong Kong.
* makeup items as described above.
* 2 'silk' scarves to hold hair out of face, $10 each -- one in the Ferragamo style.
* 1 blinking LCD medallion that says I Love You.

And I do.

Good Night & Good Duck


As I sat at the gate at SFO, waiting to board the flight to Beijing, I remembered a previous visit to China. I was living in Paris then and walked into the Air France office to buy tickets from Paris to Beijing.
"We do not have service into Beijing" the kind clerk told me, in English.
I was not upset. I am nothing if not flexible.
"OK, I want to fly into Shanghai and out of Beijing."
Exasperated withy my stupidity, the woman told me quite bluntly "We only have service to two cities in China: Shanghai and Pekin."
I have never decided which of us was the more stupid-- she for not knowing that Beijing was Peking or me for not knowing that the official airline designation has never changed.
While United announced the flight to Beijing, the luggage was indeed checked to Pekin, PEK.
Twelve hours, a few clicks of my Kindle and two Ambien later, we arrived in Pekin. The flight was only about half full and with United Extended Economy seats and an empty next to me, I could not complain. Actually, I was too drugged to complain. And I don't remember a thing.
Arrivals went smoothly; the new wing of Capital Airport looks something like a bird's nest (this seemingly a popular theme here in the pre-O build up) on top with a colonade- like front, much like the buildings inside the Forbidden City. The airport was empty, the luggage came quickly, entry into the country was flawless and swift.
We booked ahead a special hotel welcome package that included car and driver and spa on arrival. Then we went directly to the hotel's gourmet Chinese restaurant Chynna, which was stunning with examples of Chinese Contemporary Art and dishes that would make Shanghai David Tang himself green with envy. Finally, we fell into bed in the brand new Hilton Beijing Wafungjing. As I was falling into jetlaggy sleep, I answered the buzzing phone.
"Madame, we have your goldfish for you."
I didn't even know I'd remembered to pack him.
As it happens, the Hilton is half a block away from the Peninsula Beijing and I know that the name of the street used to be (pre-O) Goldfish Lane. Unsure of which one of us could be lost on the lane, I asked if the goldfish could be postponed until the next day.
This fancy smancy Hilton is big on a vareity of unique customer services, including sending a goldfish to your room to help you sleep. Perhaps they don't have enough sheep in China. The goldfish did arrive a few minutes ago; he is not your average American goldfish or what we remember buying from the pet store in a plastic baggie. This is either a goldfish on steroids or a mini-koi. Sarah and I named him Willy and then began to think of ways to free him.
When we returned from dinner a few moments ago, we knew it was him or us. I delivered him to the lounge and came to the computer to write.
I had attempted to blog earlier in the day, but alas, I am not the most technically minded fish in the pond and had a lot of problems. Make that only one major problem: the site comes up in Chinese, every time I tried it...no luck, no duck.
I actually entered all the proper information in what I assumed was the proper spaces because I kept getting a series of orange arrows, but in the end, I was as doomed as the fish.
Fueled now on Coca-Cola and duck fat after a visit to the local Big Duck eatery, I gave blogging a final stab and figured out how to change the site from Chinese to French. Then I could get to English. Voila!
Now that I've got the gist of it, I promise to write serious information in tomorrow's post.
Now, well, now I have to go back to the room to watch one of my new $1.50 DVD's. If it's illegal to bring them back to the US, then I will watch them on my room's 47 inch TV.
I have a feeling that some of the films I bought aren't worth much more tha $1.50 any way. So good night and good duck.