SPA HOPPING IN CHINA
by Roberta Sotonoff
Chinese cities are a cacophony of honking horns, trucks, cars, bikes, motorcycles and huge chunks of humanity. It can drive someone to seek therapeutic help. I would suggest the spa kind. Offerings run the gamut from luxurious spas to traditional Chinese foot massage and public baths.
Beijings’s upscale hotels like the Regent, Peninsula and Shangri-La have fabulous spas. The Shangri-La’s CHI spa draws upon Asian healing, balance and harmony philosophies, whereas the Peninsula approaches wellness with a combination of European, Ayurvedic and Oriental treatments.
Serenity Spa at the Regent Beijing is my choice. From the moment I enter the ample-sized therapy room, the stress of Beijing’s hustle and bustle seems to melt. This private sanctuary has its own private bath and changing room. No need to leave it. Just shower, don a robe, sip some tea and relax until the therapy begins.
Two masseuses work in tandem during Jing Chen, Serenity Spa’s signature treatment. The session begins with a foot bath and continues with extensive foot and leg massage. Then there is a long, soothing back massage. The scent of fresh flowers rises from a bowl below the face rest. I reluctantly turn over and don’t want this to end. So, I extend the treatment from 75 to 90 minutes. Jing Chen ends with two people simultaneously rubbing your scalp for about 15-20 minutes. Who knows how long? It is easy to lose track of time. This is truly one of the best treatments I have ever experienced.
Considering the time, the place and having two therapists, it is not that expensive. A 75-minute Jing Chen treatment costs roughly $184 (1,280 CNY --China Yuan Renminbi); 90-minutes costs about $216 (1,500CNY) and the two-hour therapy is $295 (2,050CNY).
A bit pricey? Try a traditional foot massage. They cost about $20 and are very popular with both tourists and Chinese.
Forget about the dimly lit sanctuary. At the Sanyetang Foot-Bath Club in Xian (pronounced she-en), the room is ablaze. It has three reclining beds and a noisy, giant TV. Their brochure states that they perform a “foot reflex therapy which is part of Chinese yin-yang theory and the overall Western neural control theory for the theoretical foundation,” method. Experiencing something like that, how can you not be cured—or confused?
It begins with foot soaking, then a knee in the back (to help the spine), back rubs, stretching, arm massage and the foot thing. After about 45 minutes, the therapist leaves. Believing the treatment is over, I head for the cashier. Then I hear her running down the hall yelling, "Back! Back! No finished." My treatment lasts 20 minutes longer after which time my clean feet feel great and I am relaxed.
To literally want to soak in the culture, I suggest the public bath. They are not easy to find. Since China began its overzealous modernization, most apartments now have plumbing. In dust-filled Xian, a place like the King Care Hotel baths is still not that unusual.
Be aware of a few things. Everyone walks around buck naked. Bathers are teeny, tiny Chinese ladies, so petite they can give you a complex. Also, you need an English speaking guide to tell someone which treatment you want -- honey, milk or salt.
The King Care bathing area is attractive and clean. There is a wall of showers, a large soaking pool, a sauna, steam room and several side rooms. I am the only non-Aisan there. That makes me the star attraction. The skinny ladies stare at me during my shower. Even in the steam room, eyes peer through the window.
The treatment room has about ten adjustable lounges, blazing lights and “therapists” screaming across the room. My masseuse sprays hot water on the lounge and lines it with plastic wrap.
When she hands me a package, I think it is some kind of covering to use during the treatment. It looks like Barbie-sized underwear. It won’t fit me, so I hand it back to her. Turns out, it’s a mitt. As if sanding a piece of lumber, she rubs my body with it, missing nothing. Skin falls to the floor. She washes me down like I am the massage lounge.
Next, a trip to the chalkboard. My therapist slowly reads each Chinese character and explains them to me–in Chinese. She is patient and trying very hard to please. Since my Chinese consists only of “please” and “thank you,” I politely nod.
It is back to the table. She holds a gallon-sized bottle of very slightly diluted, pure honey. Using a combination of reflexology, stretching and pounding, she spreads it all over my body. I feel like a fly magnet. While I am being totally honey-glazed, the across-the-room yelling continues. Out comes the hose. It is like being in a car wash.
Then it is off to the sauna to dry. Sitting there I realize that this is a way of life with many Chinese. They come to relax, put the outside world aside and spend time with their lady friends.
After a few minutes, a shiny patina forms over my body. I leave thinking if I stay much longer, the honey will have to be removed with a chisel. Asian eyes follow the whole process. Everyone snickers. I shower and leave. The total treatment cost is $13.
Even after three showers and shampoos, the honey lingers. I try to put on an earring and my finger sticks to my ear. Every time I think of my public bath experience, it makes me smile.
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The public baths are really only doable on a custom tour. Pacific ProTour is quite reasonable and does a wonderful job. For info: www.pacificprotour.com