Whether you’re a student, employee or retiree in China, the Western need for peace and solitude can take hold of you and make you wish for a long weekend in a Swiss chalet. But China is a boom country, with thousands of new cars (and new drivers!) on the streets every week and a population just under one and a half billion. How can you get away from it all in the world’s most concentrated and crowded nation?
Some of the usual Western methods of self-renewal are not available in China, or can even cause more stress than you absorbed during the week. Foot traffic on shopping streets can be so congested that it slows to a seemingly endless series of baby steps, as over-enthusiastic sales clerks try to pull you into their stores, or bark at you through bullhorns. Surfing the Web, due to the mood swings of the “Great Firewall of China,” can be an easy or agonizing experience in attempting to log onto your favorite Western sites. Restaurants on weekends can be crowded, with long waits, and filled with what the Chinese call “a pleasant noise”: the boisterous laughing and occasionally raucous shouting that can occur when large groups of locals are having a good time.
For almost all Westerners, a little pampering and quiet time is what’s needed to refresh the sense of personal worth: a break from the non-stop traffic and on-the-go mentality of the world’s fastest growing economy and society. Oases of comfort can be found in any Chinese city, once you learn a bit of the culture and understand current trends. Here are five tips that can immediately hit the refresh button on your weary traveler’s (or expat’s) soul in this most exciting and stimulating of countries.
1) Coffee Shops
Despite the presence of an occasional Starbucks, coffee in China isn’t a grab-and-go phenomenon. It’s a rare and expensive treat, served in special restaurants catering primarily to upscale young professionals. The actual taste of coffee is not appreciated by the majority of Chinese, so at coffee shops the drink is dressed up with tons of sweets and lots of frou-frou: ice cream, candy, fruit and whipped cream for days. Since coffee is an expensive specialty drink for status-seekers, the surroundings are cushy (a welcome relief from the majority of no-frills restaurants across the land) and the service is attentive. Some shops have intimate booths in the rear with overhead curtains that can be drawn to create privacy, filtering your booth from the looks and chatter of other patrons. (These booths quickly fill up every evening with young lovers.) Other coffee shops will have expansive couches by large glass windows that are perfect for people-watching or lazily observing a magical, golden Chinese sunset.
But avoid the menu’s overpriced and overdesigned coffee drinks. Instead, order a pot of specialty tea (for a fraction of the cost of coffee) made from fruit, flower petals, or a combination of the two. After the presentation of your heavy glass teapot, sitting on top of a votive candle stand that keeps your tea warm and fragrant, you can pour lavender-blossom or chrysanthemum-petal tea into your petite, transparent cup, and then savor the wonderful taste and aroma that will remind you of the countless delicacies to appreciate time and again from China’s rich history. Servers refill your teapot with hot water as many times as you wish, so you can sit for hours with your tea, reading from the stacks of free magazines the shops provide or simply gazing meditatively at the candle flame that warms your drink and gives your teapot an inner glow.
2) Foot Massages
Chinese are passionate about maintaining health through time-honored means. Perhaps the most rejuvenating traditional treatment is foot massage. Spending an hour or more in a reclining lounge chair with the lights dimmed, you sip complementary tea as your feet are soaked, washed in toasty-warm water, toweled dry and deeply massaged with a fragrant lotion. In your private room, you can watch TV or just close your eyes and drift, secure in the knowledge that this entire indulgence costs less than half the price of the average U.S. movie ticket.
3) Wash Your Troubles Away
Even in China’s cleanest cities such as Xiamen and Ningbo, there can be days when the grunge and pollution of a developing nation can seem to cling to you even after a long, soapy shower. If you want a deep, deep cleanse then give yourself over to a traditional way of “honoring the master”: the Ca Bei (pronounced “TSAH – bay”).
A Ca Bei is a full body scrub, done by rubbing your nude body head-to-toe with moist, steamy towels to remove dead skin cells. Ca Bei’s are usually offered at the gender-segregated saunas that are standard amenities in most large hotels in cities across the Middle Kingdom. (Saunas are open to both hotel guests and non-guests.) Soak in a hot tub, then lie down on a massage table and let the professional masseurs scrub your skin to a glowing, reviving state of renewal. Ca Bei’s can be addictive but don’t get one more than once a week. You could wake up the next day with skin too raw and tender to be touched! (Trust me on this one.)
If you’d prefer a more modest cleansing, try a shampoo at any local hair cutting salon. Done with an almost ritual-like reverence, shampoos can last up to thirty or forty-five minutes. It’s not just a hair-washing experience, it’s a deep and sleep-inducing scalp massage.
4) Enter a Temple
If your mind needs more of a cleaning than your body, stop off at a Buddhist Temple for a dose of serenity during your daily routine. Now that most religions have come out of the closet in China, Buddhist monks and nuns are happy to show visitors their temples, and welcome you through their newly-opened doors. Some are cubbyholes down side streets (just follow the sounds of drumming and chanting) while others are sprawling complexes with gift shops and vegetarian restaurants. Take along a friend who’s fluent in Chinese who could translate the fortune told to you by one of the resident holy men. Gaze at floating lotuses. Admire the ancient carved wood of the altars. Or just sit and feel the hushed reverence of those around you. The honking taxis, congested sidewalks and colossal, screaming video billboards may be just on the other side of a high red wall, but for the moment, you have found a private sanctuary thanks to centuries of dedicated work by inspired individuals.
5) Find an Unpopular Park
A medium-sized city in China will have several parks around town. Usually one or two are the popular ones, where the majority of the population goes every night to hang with friends: dads will do tai-chi together in large courtyards, kids will play with schoolmates, and moms will cluster in groups to do a few brisk, healthy walks around the lake to keep them trim and youthful while catching up on neighborhood news and gossip. Meanwhile, the grandmas will sit on cold stone benches and play mahjong and bet against each other. While these afternoons and evenings are gloriously stimulating and intriguing, parks such as these have very few empty benches and paths can get congested. And once again the “pleasant noise” in which the Chinese love to indulge can make it hard to unwind, contemplatively enjoy your ice cream cone, or carry on a lazy conversation with a friend. There is, however, a simple solution: with half the city’s population at just one of the parks, that means there are many, many other public areas where you can stretch and relax while not feeling isolated or unsafe. Just because a park is unpopular doesn’t mean it’s second-rate: just as in high school, popularity isn’t necessarily a guarantee of quality. Keep stopping to explore the parks you pass during your daily travels (the Chinese characters for public park —“gong yuan” – are two of the easiest to memorize and recognize), and you’ll find that neighborhood “public garden” (as parks are called in Mandarin) that can cater exactly to your needs for escape from the daily congestion and pollution in China. Serious joggers, parents teaching their kids to ride a bike, picnicking foreigners – just about anyone looking for some elbow room — can be found in these out-of-the-way jewels.
Initial immersion into the People’s Republic of China can be a bit of a shock to even the most seasoned traveler. Radically different from the rest of Asia (and seeming like another world from other continents), finding that small taste of familiar comfort to balance the excitement and marvels of discovery in this giant land with its multi-layered culture can occasionally be a traveler’s biggest challenge. These tips can give you that “hammock time” every traveler and expat needs in order to process and absorb the adventures of living overseas. Journeys should always revive and restore a traveler’s spirit, and never burn him out. These insights are designed and offered with that philosophy in mind.
© 2010, Douglas Bonner
About the Author: Documentary filmmaker and frequent China resident Douglas Bonner is writing a book on how to get work in China. He can be reached at mailto:Doug_China@yahoo.com
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