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Triple Play

bobamanfayun.jpgI’m deep in the throes of a project that is so un-Jackie—a magazine for the LA Dodgers—but I just had to take a seventh-inning stretch to post my three articles from the 2011 Best of the Best issue of Robb Report. Check out Amanfayun’s brand new ancient spa, the stunning residences at the Four Seasons Resort Seychelles, and Snaidero USA’s debut of some seriously rad bathrooms before the magazine slithers off newsstands to make way for July! more»

Hello! Hello!

_dsc8817b.jpgSuzhou was—for lack of a better term—a trip. Sure, I heard the same “Hello! Hello!” that white people hear all over China when wandering the streets with their cameras and sticking out like a fly in a bowl of rice. But in Suzhou, the cultural difference was, quite honestly, shocking. People followed me through the streets. Parents pointed me out to their children as some sort of educational lesson. Young girls surrounded me, asking for a picture and my email address. I was even denied service in several restaurants, the reason for which I am still unsure.

Despite feeling like an alien, Suzhou captivated me with its never-ending parade of contradictions. There were the I.M. Pei-designed art museum, the cafes and bars on trend-ified Pingjiang Road, and the main boulevard with its multiple Louis Vuitton and Hermes stores on alternating blocks that pointed to a rapidly Westernizing city. But right there too were the clotheslines drying cured meats next to damp boxer shorts, the ever-present smell of stinky tofu, and, of course, the hordes of people elbowing their friends and pointing and nodding in the direction of the lone white girl. I can’t say I know which is the real Suzhou. Some would be inclined to say the old man repairing shoes on the side of the street has more Suzhounese street cred than the spiky-haired guy shooting a fashion spread in front of a “British pub.” I’m not so sure. I suspect both are authentic in their own way. more»

Heaven Above…

westlake6.jpg More than a few times during my trip, I heard the phrase “Heaven above, Hangzhou below.” Funnily enough, when I got to Suzhou, the saying had changed—this time it was “Heaven above, Hangzhou and Suzhou below.” I think the latter is the correct version, although, after spending several days in both cities, I understand why the Hangzhounese would claim the saying for just themselves. Somehow, even during the busiest of times—whether shopping on Hubin and Nanshan roads, visiting ancient Buddhist temples, wandering from gallery to gallery at the Zhejiang Art Museum, or dodging aggressive shopkeepers on Hefang Street—the city possesses a certain peacefulness that Suzhou lacks. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that even when struggling (usually unsuccessfully) to find a taxi or walking the city’s stone sidewalks until the bones in your feet pulsate with searing pain, the serenity of West Lake is always just a stone’s throw away. more»

Explosions in the Sky

banyan3.jpg By the time I made it to Banyan Tree, the popping of firecrackers was almost incessant as Hangzhou’s locals counted down the days to the Lunar New Year. I, on the other hand, could not have been more sluggish. Having skipped from Seoul to Shanghai to Hangzhou to Suzhou and then back to Hangzhou, I was one weary traveler. With just 36 hours at Banyan Tree before retracing my circuitous path back to New York (via Seoul via Shanghai!), I had no greater desire than to bury myself deep under the covers of the fluffy king-size bed in my suite. But after an eight-course meal at Bai Yun, a two-hour Balinese massage at the spa, a stroll through the sleepy grounds of the neighboring Xixi National Wetland Park, and an invigorating workout in the gym, I was feeling like a firecracker myself, exploding with energy for the 24-hour-plus journey home. Xin Nian Kuai Le! more»

Ambassadors and Ascetics

amanfayun_villa1.jpgWhile staying in Hangzhou, I hit the jackpot and found the one taxi driver in perhaps all of China that speaks perfect English. Jerry, whose business card identifies him as “The Grass Roots Ambassador of Hangzhou,” was full of little nuggets of wisdom, like “wear your napkin from your neck when eating hot pot,” and “take ginseng to relieve menstrual cramps.” But his most valuable piece of advice was this: “If you haven’t been to the lake or the temple, you haven’t been to Hangzhou.”

The temple to which my new friend was referring is the Lingyin Temple, and lucky for me, Amanfayun, the second resort in my Tour de Hangzhou, is located just steps away. Much like the temple, where visitors can watch Buddhist monks in afternoon prayer each day at 3:30, Amanfayun reeks of authenticity from another time. Located on the site of a former tea plantation workers’ village, the resort’s guest rooms, restaurants, and tea houses are the same structures in which workers resided centuries ago. Monks even like to hang out at the Tea House from time to time, most likely on their way to the temple from another nearby landmark, the Buddhist University. But as exciting as it was to mingle with such enlightened creatures, I remembered yet another gem that Jerry shared with me: “If you want to take a picture of a monk, you must first ask.” more»

(Un)Adulterated Diversions

fshangzhou_restaurant1.jpgI ate well and I ate often at the Four Seasons’ traditional Chinese restaurant, Jin Sha, where eight-course meals are not reserved solely for dinner, and lunches can take up to several hours. Aside from the incredible meals, I went nuts over the restaurant’s 11 private dining rooms dotting the edge of one of the hotel’s man-made lagoons and accessible via a glowing, labyrinthine pathway. Each room has a distinct decor, and many include expansive waterfront terraces and plush lounging options. I quickly understood the need for these private spaces as my tour skipped several rooms from which the sounds of drunken carousing exploded. Even more exciting, these private dining rooms have a history as deliciously decadent as the DongPo pork served on their tables: General Manager Rudolf van Dijk divulged that the tradition dates back to the sexy swinging days of concubines! Meow! more»

Snowed In

fsspa1.jpgFollowing Korea, I spent nearly two weeks wandering eastern China. Well, perhaps wandering, which implies roughing it in a rucksack-and-sleeping-bag kind of way, gives an inaccurate impression. Rather, I spent the time bouncing between amazing resorts and hotels throughout the cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou.

First up was the Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake, which I would sooner describe as a resort than a hotel due to its stunning lakefront location and out-of-this-world spa. Though one of the heaviest snowfalls in recent Hangzhou history kept me from enjoying the former, it gave me the perfect excuse to spend even more time in the latter, whose vivid use of color—golds in the reception, vibrant pinks in the treatment rooms, and cool turquoises and slates in the amazing indoor pool—had me wishing the snow would never let up. more»

Ms. Diagnosis

chaum.jpgGenerally, I hate the doctor. I pass out at the sight of a needle. I sweat through my clothes while sitting in waiting rooms. I get jumpy just thinking about that tissue paper that covers the examination table. *Shudder.* But after visiting Chaum Center, Seoul’s newest medical center, destination spa, and health club wrapped into one amazing 400,000-square foot facility, I’m ruined for life. A futuristic interior filled with modern art and sleek yet comfy furniture? A gourmet Mediterranean restaurant serving organic cuisine? Cute pink jammies in place of those awful papery backless gowns? Forget it, I will never set foot in a doctor’s office again unless it’s at Chaum Center. more»

Incidents and Incursions

dmz_main.jpgIt is snowing steadily as we walk in two orderly lines to the 38th parallel. I feel like a kindergartner with a safety partner when John pushes me into the opposite line so we can be next to each other. Having stopped at the top of a wide set of cement stairs overlooking the guards—you know, the guards in mirrored glasses and judo-ready poses who stare at the guards in furry hats and long grey coats who, in turn, stare back with their own unwavering glare—we are given specific orders. “Do not point, wave, or make gestures of any kind toward North Korea,” Corporal Casiano, tells us. “Do not get too close to the guards and do not try to pass them. Their orders are to get physical with anyone who does.”

Duly noted. I’m not here to get my ass kicked.

In the distance, the faint outline of magnificent white-tipped mountains trace the edge of the horizon. I imagine they’d make great blue squares and black diamonds; then immediately wonder if such a thing will ever be possible in my lifetime. Ugly blue trailers—equal numbers belonging to the North and South (we can’t have anyone feeling more powerful now, can we?)—line the exact positioning of the 38th parallel. Dated watch towers overhead look more like abandoned shanties than the surveillance headquarters of an evil empire. Little more is visible through the winter’s heavy fog and snowflakes. Nonetheless, the enemy to which I cannot refer is watching—invisible, ubiquitous, omnipotent. Can I feel them watching me? Or do I just think I can feel them watching me? Perhaps, like many Westerners, I am just so obsessed with this place that Bill Clinton once called “the scariest place on earth” that even the slightest strangeness elicits a palpable and unrecognizable fear.

The most surprising thing about the de-militarized zone is the lack of any real action taking place. Despite the feeling of a certain intangible and unspoken threat hanging in the air, the actual physical stimulus remains at an incredible low. Anywhere else, empty trailers, empty train stations, and empty observation platforms would make for a mind-numbingly dull experience. And yet, whether due to expectation or reality, it is this disparate solitude that makes the tension along the border that much more poignant. Its emptiness simply reinforces that my every move—whether I’m toeing the ambiguously-drawn yellow line on the observation deck, which, after crossing, I can no longer take photos; or sheepishly edging near that guard poised in his foreboding ready-to-tear-your-shit-up stance—is under surveillance. Perhaps if I could look them back square in the eye, I’d have less discomfort in knowing that they—whoever and wherever they are—are watching.

Oddly, this part of Korea, the part most Americans think of first when the country is mentioned, is not present in Seoul, which is just an hour-long bus ride away. John and I mentioned our trip to several Seoulites we met during our week in the city, and received widely varied—though generally disapproving—responses: “that’s just a tourist area for foreigners” or “that’s not the real Korea” or (my favorite) “it’s not very nice there.” It made the concept of perspective ever-present in my mind during this trip, though no matter how hard I tried to think like a local—reading their English-language newspaper everyday and trying to understand how calling another country “belligerent” a handful of times in a single article could be considered objective—I just couldn’t fathom how this border with the only wholly closed country remaining on our planet could be regarded in such an incurious manner.

And speaking of perspective, more than a few times, John and I couldn’t help wondering: is there some mirror-image group of North Korean tourists on the other side of this tunnel learning about evil South Korea, and therefore, evil US? Corporal Casiano assured us this was not possible. But I couldn’t help thinking that, not only does such a bizarro-world scenario seem entirely possible, it still wouldn’t be the strangest thing happening at the DMZ. more»