Storming the Summer Palace: Party Crashing in Beijing
They were ready to roll out the red carpet for Angela. I was about to trip over it.
By Janis Turk
It was morning, and somewhere in the bowels of the Beijing airport, Angela was trying to lose me.
We’d just disembarked after a pre-dawn flight from Shanghai, and I had a long layover before the grueling flight back to New York.
Angela Tritten, my traveling companion, had a 10-hour layover before her flight back to LA and plans that I clearly was not part of. Still, I elbowed my way through the crowds and scurried a few polite steps behind her trying to keep up.
At the end of a tunnel of fluorescent light, a beautiful business-like airport employee with a clipboard greeted Angela with a slight bow, and I acted invisible. The woman hadn’t expected two of us. (Thank God the Chinese are too polite to ask who I am). The woman looked confused but smiled weakly to cover it. Angela rolled her eyes at me, incensed. Still I quietly trudged behind them, suitcase in tow.
We moved stealthily through the private VIP exit in the basement (that stars like Brad and Angelina use) where a black shiny Mercedes with dark tinted windows awaited. As I piled in the back seat and buckled up, and they whisked us away, Angelav stared at me, wide-eyed and unbelieving. Her mouth fell open in a perfect red-lipstick O… as in “OMG! The audacity! The absolute nerve!” We were en route to the Aman at Summer Palace, a luxury hotel just outside Bejing, China.
I know. It’s impolite to invite yourself to lunch—especially when you’re neither wanted nor expected and it’s a schmoozey business lunch meeting at, say, a palace. Bringing a freeloader friend could put my friend in a terribly awkward position.
Tour the Five Star Aman
A fellow travel writer, Angela had been invited to tour the five-star Aman at Summer Palace Resort and dine with the resort’s food and beverage director, and they were about to roll out the red carpet for her.I was about to trip over it.
But what was the alternative? A six-hour layover in Beijing, after a long pre-dawn flight from Shanghai, before another grueling 14-hour flight back to NY? What you do? Eat food-court fried rice and sleep in a chair for nearly six hours? Or would you instead push your way into a palace? The choice seemed obvious.
I assured Angela I I’d stay out of her way, sit in the lobby, read a magazine and buy postcards in the gift shop.
Maybe I’d have lunch in one of the restaurants or tour the Summer Palace next door. I’d lounge by the pool with a magazine and be back in the Beijing airport with hours to spare. “You won’t even know I’m there,” I said. It sounded reasonable enough.
Angela stared out the window at the smog.
I should have known it’s a really long way from the Beijing Airport to the summer palace—even without traffic. The clock was already ticking, and I had to be back at the airport in time to catch my plane.
But like the Eveready Bunny, we kept going and going farther outside the city. The Summer Palace was not in any part of Beijing I’d ever seen. I began to worry that I might just miss my flight.
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” I mumbled.
“You think?” Angela glared. What little she lacked in mad, I made up for in nervous.
I had been to a sister-property, the Amanjena in Marrakech, so I figured the Aman at Summer Palace was going to be something like it—a huge swank resort with acres of lobbies, libraries and pools. There’d be lots of international guests, and I’d fit in with my oversized camera and long fancy lenses. I’d snap a few pictures and be on my way. No big deal.
Little did I know each Aman resort is more like the place it inhabits than like any other Aman property. Each is distinctive and culturally attuned to its environs. I’d see that soon. In the meantime, I was starting to sweat at the realization that 1) cab fare back to the airport could cost as much as a plane ticket to NY, and 2) I had zero cash in a place where most cabs don’t take credit cards. I would have gotten Renminbi at the airport, but Angela would have left me in the dust if I’d stopped at an ATM. So I asked the driver to find a bank machine.
He looked at me as if I’d just peed in the backseat.
He did not stop. There were no ATMs nearby.
An hour or so later, we arrived. The entrance looked like a gate to the Forbidden City—it felt that way, too. The Aman at Summer Palace is exquisite. The resort comprises a series of historic dwellings adjacent to the East Gate of the actual 250-year-old Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some of the buildings were once lodging for guests of the Emperor, and many of the buildings are over 100 years old. A sense of tranquility pervades every inch of the resort.
The Aman at Summer Palace is perfect and simple, like a rare pearl. It has been designed in the very manner of the Palace itself and has an otherworldly Shangri La vibe. It’s like you expect the Dahlia Lama to be the bellhop or something.
The entrance opens to a large living area with stunning, authentic period furnishings in keeping with the glorious space. It is not, however, a typical hotel with a desk and reception clerks and room keys and that kind of thing. Staying here is like going to your own Summer Palace residence—you walk in and the people know you by name and your bags are whisked to your suite before you get out of the limo.
This is not a place where one could blend into the scenery or a crowd. There is no scenery—just simplicity, like a perfect robin’s egg blue rice bowl alone on a table, a pure white orchid bending its one slim stalk to the sun.
Not notice I was here? Forget it. This is like a casino—the staff knows everyone and everything that goes on in the property—your every move. Things appear as if by magic the moment you wish for them.
The Aman’s level of service is genie-in-a-bottle-like beautiful. It’s not a hotel—it’s a millionaire’s private club, a second home to the wildly rich and famous, and it’s decorated with period-perfect Ming Dynasty style objets d’art. Sheiks, princes, diplomats, celebrites, rock stars stay here.
Nightly rates for suites are comparable to monthly rent for a small New York apartment. I didn’t exactly blend into this crowd. There was no crowd. People like that don’t sit in the lobby and look at their nails.
I skulked over to a divan, sat down and began nervously fidgeting with my camera bag. So much for going undetected. Angelaand I were the only ones in the room but for the staff offering us sparkling water with fresh strawberry slices and mint leaves floating on the bubbles. With tongs they handed us ice-water fresh towels to cool our necks and clean our hands.
The manager came out to greet us. He was dressed in a light summer shirt. He had a warm grin. He is Canadian and charming and gracious, and he welcomed me. I apologized and explained that I had a horrific layover but that I would just sit there in the front room and get a cab back soon. “Nonsense,” he insisted. “You come with us.” If I were unwelcome, he was far too gracious to let it show.
Angela sighed. So this was how it was going to be. I was crashing her lunch. We toured the manicured grounds. We saw a room where fat paintbrushes were laid out with rolls of rice paper for guests and their children to enjoy.
We toured the resort beauty salon and spa, the restaurants, the wine rooms and bars, a private movie screening room, a gym, spacious suites and quiet lounges.
The outdoor areas were replete with ponds full of bright fat colorful koi. Footbridges, quiet pathways, and temple-like structures dotted the property in the shadow of the Summer Palace.
The Aman at Summer Palace is based on the classiest of principals—that the place you stay should be not only a destination but also a refuge. You should be rejuvenated after a vacation, not exhausted. A property should be not only respectful of its environment; it should be at one with it. Such principles make for true hospitality—talents the Chinese have perfected over the ages and that Aman hotels well understand. Even an interloper like me was treated as an honored guest—I felt humbled and grateful.
Soon bulbous glasses of wine and a fabulous lunch were laid before us in one of the property’s dining rooms. Angela talked with the manager about spirits and wine—her areas of expertise as a travel writer.
She ignored me, and I didn’t blame her. This was her meeting, not mine. I nibbled on a carrot stick and sipped my wine. A woozy happiness came over me as I watched shadows grow long outside the window and weeping willow tree’s soft leaves bend to touch the water in the quiet pond by a little footbridge
Wait, long shadows? What time is it? OH MY GOD! I’d never make my flight now.
Like Cinderella, I raced out of the restaurant and nearly lost my footing. Out front, they had a taxi waiting for me—not quite the beautiful black Mercedes I’d come in on, but who cared if my coach were now a pumpkin. I was a bumpkin, myself: “I need an ATM!” I shouted at the driver. The manager, who was more worried than I about my missing the plane shoved over-sized Chinese bills into my hand though the window.
“Here, take this,” he said. “If you stop at an ATM, you’ll miss the plane!”
I now had cab fare. I felt sick with embarrassment to take the money and was worried about missing the plane. The traffic was horrific, but we finally made it.
The Beijing airport seemed to double and triple in size as I ran through its halls. It was like a computer game—I’d make it through one difficult labyrinth-like level only to find myself embroiled in a new clash on the next floor.
Like universes unfolding in front of me, the airport went on forever. I sprinted like OJ Simpson in a ’70s Hertz commercial. I was sweaty and hot and out of breath when I finally fell into my seat—the final person to board the last flight out to NY.
I’d dined at the gates of the Summer Palace, depended on the kindness of strangers, and gotten away with it… again. Once more I almost missed my plane, and once more I’d made it. It was seat-of-my-pants stupid. I felt lucky, but I also felt embarrassed and angry with myself. Still I’d glimpsed a side of Beijing that most people will only see in movies. The life of a travel writer is like that.
I think sometimes about that day at the gates of the Summer Palace—about people who stay in such places, about the luxury of silence that decorated those rooms, about travel pros like Angela who do it right. Then I think about my hobo-like life, running through airports, sneaking through VIP tunnels, chasing suitcases through terminals, annoying friends, sipping wine too long and having desperate people shove money at me to make me go away. It’s true: On that day, I was not my best travel-writer self.
Sometimes travel brings out the worst in us when showing us the best. But if I had it to do over, I would. To stand in shadow of the Summer Palace once more? You bet.
IF YOU GO:
• FLY AIR CHINA from most major US airports. This Star Alliance-member airline makes an the long journey a dream with its ultra-clean aircraft, courteous and helpful staff, and delicious healthful meals. You’ll be rested and relaxed when you arrive in China. www.airchina.us
• Stay in style at AMAN AT SUMMER PALACE
• I stayed in the KEMPINSKI HOTEL BEIJING Lufthansa Center.This is a fine business class hotel with fab restaurants, including (oddly enough) a German biergarten called the Paulaner Bräuhaus; the Kempi Deli; and (my favorite) the Dragon Palace, featuring Cantonese and contemporary Chinese cuisine
WHAT TO DO AND SEE IN AND AROUND BEIJING:
• Visit Tiananmen Square and the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City, home of Chinese Emperors for more than 500 years.
• Visit the Summer Palace, taking a leisure stroll while admiring the thousands of ancient murals along the Long Corridor and a boat ride on the Kunming Lake. Enjoy a dinner featuring the famous Peking Duck in the evening at any of the many fine restaurants in the city who pride themselves in Beijing’s signature dish.
• Go on an excursion to the Great Wall. Enjoy the dramatic vistas and marvel at the Wall as it climbs and descends steep ridges and narrow valleys. On the way to Great Wall, have a photo stop beside the Olympic venue “Birds nest” and “Water Cube.”
• Visit the Ming Tombs starting with a stroll along the Sacred Way guarded by the stone statues; then onto the Chang Ling Exhibition Museum.
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Janis Turk is a travel writer, photographer, and author who has appeared in travel segments for CNN’s airport network. Her work appears in magazines and newspapers and popular travel websites. Her most recent book Frommer’s TEXAS (2017) is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.