Yesterday my two missions were to find an English language bookstore and to go to a spa. Fortunately google is permitted within the Great Firewall of China so I quickly found a complex called Book Mall two stops away on the Longhua line, next to the Children’s Palace. When I got there the mall was three floors of books essentially divided up like a library. There was a small selection of English language books and I got Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger for 80 yuan or $16NZ.
As I was leaving I found the proper English language section which had a pretty big range of children’s books, best sellers and magazines, then a small table of bargain books near the mall exit. Hooray, book needs were met.
Back to the hotel feeling like a Metro veteran, then holiday fatigue kicked in and I ran out of motivation to do anything. Couldn’t concentrate on TV, on reading, didn’t want to go anywhere so I made myself research spas online.
There are two big spas popular with expats: Water Cube (or SLF Spa) and Queen Spa. They both sounded modern and interesting but the Water Cube had better access via Metro so that was the one I chose. I am so, so pleased I looked them up online first or I would have run away in confusion and fright.
Water Cube is a 30-40 storey building near the Hong Kong border and none of the staff speak English – I had held out some hope but it didn’t last long. When you walk in (on red carpet, past the doorman) there are a man and woman standing at a podium at the foot of a huge staircase. They give you a plastic wristband with a number on it and then send you up the stairs.
(Everyone I interacted with was confused and disbelieving that I was there alone; evidently I should have been there with a companion of some sort.)
At the top of the stairs I was met by a woman (presumably if you’re male you are met by a man) who took me to a locker that matched my wristband. The wristband is your ID in the spa and unlocks your locker — so in theory your belongings are secure. I was told to put everything in the locker, handbag, jewelry, clothing — really, everything — and put on a towel. I was offered a shower and then sent to the sauna with a cold washcloth and a cup of warm water (everywhere we have been serves the water warm and sometimes lemony). Five minutes in there until I was good and sweaty and then out and into a cubicle with a different woman covered me in a wet towel and slapped the crap out of it and me. It sounds very wrong and I have no idea if she was slapping me with another towel or with her hands…but it felt good.
Then she proceeded to scrub every millimeter of me with a loofah glove…the only parts not touched would be where you might wear a very tiny g-string. It must have taken about half an hour and we attempted to have a conversation about our children (at least that’s what I think it was about…). When that was done she showed me a piece of paper that must have listed the services I had used, which I signed (in my locker was a miniature magna-doodle which had my signature on it, presumably so they could check it was really me and I couldn’t get out of paying by claiming forgery). You can select a tip from several options from 10 to 40 yuan. Each service has a fee attached and they push hard to get you to go for a more expensive option. Every service also has a compulsory tip…you can’t choose not to tip for a service. I imagine staff are paid from tips and the fee is kept by the management.
So after that I was offered another shower and given a pair of shorty pajamas (in XXXL) and disposable underwear. Yummy… And then sent down some stairs and up some other stairs to be met by a therapist. We haggled over services (listed in English on a menu) and I agreed to a basic full body massage. I was a bit worried about getting ripped off at this point..also about not having enough cash to pay at the end because it’s a bit hard to keep track of everything you are or aren’t charged for. The therapist found us an empty room which was dimly lit and had a tv and stereo, a sink and a massage table and not much else. Water Cube is quite new and mostly clean and this room was quiet and nicely decorated.
I got to remove my pajamas and lay down covered in a towel. Then I spent the next 60 minutes being kneaded and massaged and some of it was a little bit painful but overall it was really damn awesome and I would never hesitate to recommend that place and that massage therapist. When I was on my back I got a clay mask which set while she finished the rest of the massage, then she removed the mask and I got a facial and scalp massage. By the time she finished 90 minutes had gone by and I was so wobbly and relaxed I almost couldn’t stand up again.
So then I sign another slip of paper with tick the tip. The woman shows me her ID number on a badge (no names anywhere…) I think so I can recommend her? And she leads me to a massive lounge with dozens of gigantic recliners. She points out a counter laden with food and drink with staff prepping more behind it — I read online that this is complimentary but I was a bit wary plus not overly hungry so I grabbed a juice at random (which luckily wasn’t pumpkin juice…I keep seeing that) and chose a recliner. I was surrounded by men, I don’t know if I’d sat in the wrong area or if it was just a coincidence. Each recliner has its own TV and tray for food, and reclines right back into a single-sized bed. Female staff were chatting to men around me, giving foot rubs or leg rubs or just generally having a gossip. I imagine some of the men would be regulars and known to staff.
So I found an English channel (which was showing Australia, ha) and it wasn’t long before a staff member came and offered me a manicure and pedicure. I was still worried about the cost so I let myself get suckered into a manicure but to a pedicure (it’s like you’re SAVING money!) and proceeded to watch tv and be pampered. The man beside me was smoking which seems to be normal and acceptable, and it’s not a quiet space because everyone’s TV is competing with everyone else’s. But it is still relaxing and I was feeling very relaxed and mellow so I didn’t particular care about much.
Sign another piece of paper and then try to find the showers…with some charades from me pretending to wash myself. After I showered I was allowed to open my locker and get dressed, then pointed towards a table where someone can blow dry your hair (for a tip). I opted to dry my own hair while the staff looked on…maybe this isn’t typical, but I was feeling like I might be very poor by now!
After that I grabbed my belongings and was sent down the stairs to the entrance where there turned out to be, away from the entrance podium, a bank of cashiers. They had my details on the computer so I just needed to show my wristband and check that the services listed were correct (they might’ve been; it wasn’t in English). Fortunately they took a credit card to my immense relief because it was definitely more than I had in cash. For about 3.5 hours of pampering and entertainment and novelty, I paid $140NZ. That seemed like an ok deal to me.