China Travel: Air China & Beijing

Entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing
I had the opportunity to sample Air China in business class. The airline operates from Terminal 2 at LAX, which is undergoing serious reconstruction right now. Check-in was smooth. The upside of flying from T2 is you avoid all the traffic at Bradley Terminal and you get a non-stop flight to Beijing. The  downside is right now there are no restaurants in T2, unlike the great services now available at Bradley.
China Air uses Air Canada's VIP lounge, which was comfortable and served up a buffet of cold cuts, salads, cut veggies, a couple of soup choices. The Air China flight was comfortable enough, and the entertainment offered a reasonable choice in movies and TV shows in English -- but as they say in China, it was "ma ma hu hu" -- just so-so. But if you want to catch up on popular Chinese films, you can have a fun time of it. Food satisfied one's hunger, but was less than spectacular.
Since I first visited Beijing 11 years ago, Beijing has modernized and grown quite a bit, with about 20 million residents. I stayed at two hotels. The Four Seasons Beijing is a great hotel with top level service you'd expect from the brand. The Executive/Club Lounge is on the top floor, with an outdoor terrace with city views (on a clear day), and otherwise is large and very spacious.
The hotel boasts the top Italian restaurant in the city, beautifully decorated with a stunning chandelier that extends the entire length of the dining area. There's also a Chinese restaurant and a tea lounge in the spa area, featuring China's finest teas. Breakfast is a sumptuous buffet served in an indoor atrium off the main lobby, featuring an excellent array of choices.
The lead-in deluxe room is comfortable, though there's only one sink in the bathroom. Room decor is masculine, with lots of darker woods and good appointments. I had a larger junior suite. The bathroom was large with double sinks, with separate toilet room, closet area, walk-in shower and a bath with a large window facing the street. Staff here have a good command of English.
The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott in Beijing are side by side. Our entry-level room at the Ritz-Carlton had a spacious bath with two sinks, but the toilet area was part of the main bathroom with a clear glass enclosure-- somewhat impractical for those that prefer a bit more privacy. Poorly done.
The main Aroma Restaurant was fine, more functional than  luxurious, just not up to Ritz quality in my view. Breakfast buffet and dinner buffets here offered lots of choices, and generally the food was very good. Staff work hard to please though English communication was sometimes a bit strained. For the upscale traveler there are certainly more inviting properties to consider in Beijing, including the Four Seasons, the new Rosewood, and the Shangri La.
We arranged for a private car and guide with our local supplier. Rachel was an experienced guide of at least 7 years, in her 30's and comfortable and conversational with us and easy to travel with. While a private car and driver with guide is certainly more costly, the added value is immeasurable. With Beijing's traffic, getting around by car was more efficient, and a knowldgeable guide saves one a LOT of time handling admission tickets, getting around, and enriching one's visit.
The Panjiaynan Market is mentioned in all the guides for shopping, and it was a lot of fun to shop and bargain at -- you can find pretty much everything here, if you're okay with not knowing the quality of what you might be getting. It's immense. We enjoyed lunch at the Bamboo Garden, a very lovely spot with very good food and surrounded by a garden.
In the afternoon we were off to Chao , stopping at the famous dissident artist Ai Wei Wei's front door and then visiting a few very high-end galleries here, then to the 798 art district, which has become a popular area for visiting shops and galleries, the Ullens Art Center and various dining spots. To roam the area is to see a very modern side of China.
The next day we visited (along with the rest of the world) the Summer Palace, and enjoying its park-like setting and lake views. We also visited Beihai Park (photo above) and some key temples: the Lama Temple, Confucius Temple and Temple of Earth. Our lunch stop was amazing, at the former residence of a prince, with a beautiful courtyard with a large koi pond in the center.  In the evening, we had cocktails and hors d'ouevres at the Temple Bar Restaurant, a cutting edge French fusion spot that was once a temple, and so rather controversial in its conversion to a hi-end restaurant. Dinner was at a popular Mongolian hot pot restaurant with our local supplier. After a few glasses of Australian wines -- we finished off the night with a small bottle of baiju, the local liquor.
After a couple of days on our own, we met up with our group and visited the must-see sites: the Forbidden City, the Great Wall at Badaling,  At the Badaling Hotel just near the Wall, we had a special dinner on the rooftop of the hotel, and had a section of the Wall lit up with lights at night. 
Dan Ilves