Beijing's Backingham Palace

From back rubs to bowling to B-movies, this Chinese spa has it all.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
January 15, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

I first suspected that the spa experience in Beijing was going to be different when I noticed the bowling alley. That I was there at all was enough of a surprise -- it wasn't as if I'd planned on making pampering part of my visit to Asia. Aside from the fact that I've never considered Beijing a big resort town, I'm not much for the mudpack and manicure scene anyway. I may be as big a hair-tossing, lip-gloss-chewing girly girl as you'll ever meet, but I live in fear of stepping into the same paper slippers as the kind of female others refer to as "high maintenance." Besides, I really hate Enya music. But I've always suspected I could enjoy the beauty retreat scene, if only they'd just butch it up a little. And on the other side of the world, I've discovered they have.

I might never have learned this had it not, on my third day in the Imperial City, rained. Rain in Beijing, one of the world's most lung-punishingly polluted cities, is a bleak and suffocating thing to endure. By the time my host and I had gamely trudged through a morass of overcrowded indoor tourist attractions, I was all ears when the subject of Jacuzzis and back rubs came up. It didn't hurt that my friend assured me the place she had in mind was no dainty princess joint. Even the name -- Backingham Palace -- suggested a kind of cheesy whimsy not found at any Bliss or Origins. I was in.

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The exterior of Beijing's lesser-known palace is swathed in enough Vegas-worthy illumination to cut straight through the densest smog. Its interior glows with gold and marble. Impressive, but it doesn't exactly whisper "tranquil oasis." After being ushered in by a rigid, epaulet-sporting doorman, a visitor is immediately faced, "Let's Make a Deal"-style, with three large doors to choose from. Behind one is a tony restaurant. Behind another is the spa proper. And behind the third is a lavish, supersize bowling alley.

Bowling, by the way, is nearly as popular an activity in Beijing as public spitting. Who would have thought the preferred sport of Laverne and Shirley would be such a hit in the East? As I peered inside at the shining wood floors and pristine balls, I wondered if I'd need a mandarin-collar bowling shirt. All I knew for certain was that at last, a dream -- I never even realized I had -- was coming true. I could exfoliate and get in a few frames, all under the same roof.

Our first stop was the wet area. My friend and I soaked in the whirlpool till we were pruney, sipping cool water while overhead a TV blared the evening news. In all my limited previous schvitz experiences, I'd always known there was something lacking. Now I understood what it was -- entertainment, or at least a few headlines. Throw in a dose of electrocution danger, and you've got yourself a good time.

After steaming, salt rubbing and a bracing dip in the pool, my friend and I strolled over to the spa's gilded changing room, where somber-looking attendants stood ready to prepare us for the next phase of our treatment. They started by handing us a pair of matching pink terry-cloth rompers, replete with delicate pink bows. I docilely dressed, pausing only to gaze for a moment at my cotton candy form in the mirror. I looked like I was on my way to a Teletubbies audition. But just when I was beginning to feel victimized by institutionalized uniform wearing, my friend led me into the palace's co-ed area.

There, sprawling in the lounge and pounding brewskis, was a genial group of rotund, middle-aged men decked out in the same beribboned rompers -- albeit a manly powder-puff blue version. I felt a little like I'd just burst in on a nursery-themed fetish club.

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We padded lazily through the lounge to our ultimate destination, the massage room. As my eyes adjusted to the soothing semidarkness, I spied row after well-spaced row of the largest collection of deluxe La-Z-Boys I have ever encountered. Better still, they were all pointed in the direction of not one but two wide-screen TVs. I nudged my friend and sighed that I was never, ever leaving.

We picked a suitable vantage point, threw our chairs into recline and settled in for the afternoon's entertainment: a bullet-riddled, blood-soaked Hong Kong action picture. Had it been anything else -- say, soothing images of mountain streams and twittering birds -- I would have been sorely disappointed.

My friend and I ordered a few drinks while our masseuses, inexplicably attired in crisp white nurse's uniforms, went to work on our scalps, necks and shoulders. While the experience was sublime, there was one jarring moment when my massage therapist stuck her fingers in my ears and began wiggling them around (a sensation that, while not unpleasant, sent me into convulsions of waxy buildup shame).

I was already loose and relaxed from the sauna. The masseuse's hands were skilled and reassuring. The La-Z-Boy was angled just right, and the cocktails were hitting my bloodstream. All I know is that I began to feel distinctly drowsy, and before long I was contentedly drooling onto my absorbent pink romper. I was only thrust from my slumber when a cinematic musical interlude interrupted the gunplay and screaming coming from the television. And as the merry band of Asian rockers blazed their way through a phonetic version of a Rod Stewart song, I considered the possibility that I was in the middle of my best day ever. "It doesn't get any better than this," I sleepily grunted to my companion, who replied something to the general effect of, "Mmmmph."

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Eventually, we staggered back to our lockers, combed our hair and surrendered our play togs. The next day, the sun came out. I spent the remainder of my trip scrambling around the Great Wall and exploring the Forbidden City, both of which are very nice but do not possess a single reclining chair between them. I don't know when I'll get back to China, but I do know that I must return someday. Because despite the astonishing power and beauty of the journey, it wasn't complete. It wasn't until I was halfway home and mentally reviewing the previous few days' highlights that I realized -- I'd never even tried out that bowling alley.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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