updated 9/13/2006 2:35:46 PM ET 2006-09-13T18:35:46

China’s capital represents the yin and yang of today’s spa culture with ancient herbal remedies offered in thoroughly modern settings. Welcome to the brave new world of pampering.

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Whisked to the last empty seat in a row of recliner chairs, I am facing a huge flat-screen TV, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered on my first night in Beijing. I am about to have a reflexology treatment in one of the city’s storefront massage centers, and at 1 a.m., the place is packed with locals getting their weekly dose of preventive medicine after a night of clubbing or working late. The Chinese take their health very seriously; some massage centers even stay open until 3 a.m. so citizens can fit a quick treatment into their busy lives. After all, massage isn’t considered an indulgence in China, but rather a crucial link to good health.

My uniformed masseur — his name badge reads 00758 — washes my feet in a wooden bucket of hot water and sweet-smelling Chinese herbs. So far, he hasn’t spoken a single word, but when 007 starts working pressure points on my left foot, he suddenly announces, “Oscar, Oscar!” I look up at the television and see Charlize Theron on the red carpet and realize I have a front row seat to the most memorable Oscar party of my life. Imagine a gathering of strangers in Beijing having their feet rubbed while taking in the Academy Awards in English with Chinese subtitles. As I watch the stars in their stilettos, I receive a foot pummeling that sounds like applause as eight therapists in a row pound in unison.

My early-morning foot massage was just one of many contrasts evident in China’s rapidly changing capital, where old buildings are being razed to the ground or upstaged by futuristic architecture such as the National Theater, a silvery egg-shaped structure of titanium and glass that’s an astonishing contrast to the austere government buildings nearby on Tiananmen Square. Beijing is a city undergoing a unique metamorphosis that is melding past and future. It’s also a city on fast-forward as it preps itself for its global coming-out party, the 2008 Olympics, keen to show it’s as hip as any city in the world. And yet, ancient traditions haven’t been abandoned. Early every morning, the parks fill with mostly older Chinese practicing qi gong and tai chi. Smile and show some interest and you’ll be invited to join.

And while it’s a culture steeped in the arts of natural healing, Western-style spas have been slow to make their mark. Opened in 2001, the St. Regis Spa & Club is still Beijing’s only retreat that fits the conventional definition of a spa. Other five-star hotels have integrated traditional Chinese medicine with attempts at pampering into their fitness centers — they just don’t call their services spa treatments. You won’t see over-the-top decor, but you will see wellness in a whole new light. Healing methods such as herbalism, acupressure, and cupping and scraping spring from ancient practices and tempt us Westerners with their unpretentious, no-nonsense approach. In truth, it’s a refreshing change to witness their back-to-basics methods, all in the pursuit of good health.

The assembly line at my reflexology treatment was light-years away from my experience at The Peninsula Palace Beijing’s fitness center, which was soothing, attentive, and included a health diagnosis, an extra 007 didn’t provide. By law, hotels are required to match guests with a therapist of their same gender, so I was paired with The Peninsula’s Peggy Zhang. “There are 7,200 nerve endings in each foot that run through the organs to the brain,” explained Zhang. “The feet tell the story of your entire body. If any organ or part of the body is not functioning properly, the corresponding pressure point will swell slightly or you will feel pain even when I exert mild pressure.” As the session went on, I felt more and more relaxed, though I experienced the occasional sharp sensation, which helped Zhang zero in on some of my ailments. She offered this diagnosis: digestive problems (I’ve had four feet of small intestine removed due to an obstruction), bad knees (I had to stop running years ago), and insomnia (not really, but I do stay up too late), before finishing up with a relaxing massage of my calves to improve circulation.

The luxurious setting of The Peninsula seems an unlikely place for a doctor’s visit, but it is in keeping with Beijing’s allure. Traditional medicine isn’t only found in the hundreds of health-focused massage parlors and herbal medicine shops; it’s also available in the fitness center of this five-star hotel. The treatment room, decorated with Asian-style lamps and scrolls inscribed with Chinese calligraphy, makes you forget you’re in a health club, one with separate saunas and steam rooms for men and women, two treatment rooms, medical doctors on staff, and a strong focus on traditional healing. Massage options include aromatherapy, sports, abdominal, and a traditional Chinese head and shoulders option, as well as foot reflexology. Afterward, you can relax on cushioned teak chaises that line the hotel’s gorgeous glassed-in swimming pool.

I was game to try cupping and scraping, both ancient Chinese healing remedies said to stimulate the flow of energy (or chi) through the body, but the staff discouraged me (the skin bruising turns off most Westerners), suggesting I first observe the treatments before booking any. To begin his cupping session, The Peninsula’s Dr. Peter Zhang lit an alcohol-soaked cotton swab and poked it quickly in and out of a round glass cup, sucking out the oxygen to create a vacuum when he pressed the glass down firmly on his client’s back. Beneath the glass, the skin rose into a swollen round mass that soon turned red, a desired effect that means stagnant blood has been brought to the surface. After a few minutes, Dr. Zhang carefully slid the glass to another spot without losing the suction and then added three more cups on both sides of the spine, working the meridians on the back to clear blocked energy, increase blood circulation, lymph flow, and metabolism, and relieve muscle tension. Although the client clearly wasn’t in much pain, his back was covered with round purple bruises, which, I was told, usually disappear within four to seven days.

Scraping, a remedy with benefits similar to cupping, can be done on different parts of the body depending on the ailment. For about 20 minutes, Dr. Zhang scraped the pressure points on another patient’s back with a smooth piece of ox horn until he looked like he’d been flogged. I have to admit I lost my courage.

Hours later, once I had regained my adventurous spirit, I set off to explore another ancient healing method at Beijing’s largest medicine shop, Tong Ren Tang, which has been dispensing traditional remedies since 1669, though the practice in China dates back thousands of years. There I bought a few of the company’s best sellers: Black-Bone Chicken and White Phoenix pills, an invigorating, revitalizing remedy for women; Dog Skin Plaster for back pain; and Bone Strengthening Yellow Wine, which reportedly helps men “strengthen their kidneys,” a term I later learned meant “increase vigor.” Out of the question was a hunk of ginseng root for $2,000 — apparently some cures don’t come cheap at Beijing’s oldest pharmacy.

There are Tong Ren Tang shops all over Beijing, but the best is their enormous original store south of Tiananmen Square on Dashilan Street, where you can watch doctors in white coats scoop herbs, blossoms, seeds, berries, and minerals onto a large piece of paper from tiny drawers that line the wall from floor to ceiling. The ingredients and measurements are double-checked against the prescription by another doctor who bundles and labels the concoctions, which are typically imbibed as teas, soups, and herbal infusions.

In Chinese healing, herbs are classified by the four energies — cold, hot, warm, or cool. A cooling herb would be used to treat an illness of a hot nature and so on. Herbs are also categorized by the five tastes—sour, bitter, pungent, sweet, and salty, and these tastes have different effects on the organs and body functions. Only by understanding the capabilities of individual herbs did physicians learn the benefits of combining them. I wished I had time for a consultation with one of Tong Ren Tang’s physicians, but I had a doctor’s appointment at the St. Regis Hotel, Beijing.

“Sun damage, freckles, wrinkles around the eyes, face dry and a little flabby.” That was the brutal truth according to Dr. Li Ting’s diagnosis. A translator explained these facial flaws were caused by “high pressure of work, a lot of travel, insufficient sleep, and irregular daily life.” I certainly hoped that this Chinese herbal facial would give my face, if not my ego, a lift. Based on her evaluation of my skin, Dr. Li requested a selection of herbs that were quickly brought over from the Beijing Oriental Traditional Medical Science Clinic — rose for lightening my freckles and soothing the skin, angelica for skin whitening, Chinese wolfberry to make the skin more radiant and to brighten the eyes, chrysanthemum to reduce inflammation (puffy eyes) and balance the skin, cockscomb to diminish redness and enhance capillary function, and ginseng to nourish the skin and slow down the appearance of aging.

After cleansing my face, Dr. Li put the herbs into a steaming machine, and I drifted off to sleep while soaking in the prescriptive mist. Next, she blended a customized facial mask, using lavender, chamomile, angelica, licorice, chrysanthemum, root of red-rooted salvia, pearl powder, and water from the spa’s underground hot spring, a 5,000-foot-deep source for pure thermal water that feeds the spa’s pools and laces its treatments. While the creamy blue mask dried — so tight it felt like plaster of paris — Dr. Li massaged my neck and shoulders. The mask wiped off easily with hot washcloths, and when Dr. Li applied eye control cream and moisturizer, I felt red carpet ready even without lipstick. The translator said Dr. Li advised I get more sleep and drink more water but not before bedtime, which would cause swelling around the eyes in the morning. I should also steer clear of spicy food to avoid skin problems, eat an apple every day, and drink more fresh juice instead of coffee or Coke. As we said good-bye, Dr. Li said, “Keep good mood. Be happy every day.”

The St. Regis also offers cupping and scraping in addition to its extensive treatment menu, which includes Chinese massage, herbal facials, and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) diagnoses from Chinese doctors, plus European, Western, and Oriental massage and skin treatments. There are ten treatment rooms and separate facilities for men and women, including saunas, aroma steam rooms, relaxation lounges, and plunge pools filled with water drawn from the natural hot spring. (Although these particular pools are contained in ornately tiled private rooms, the Chinese have been making pilgrimages — whether for healing or pure relaxation — to country hot springs for centuries.)

After four nights, I was beginning to get used to the ritual of midnight massages. I had had several treatments at this late hour, including a massage at one of the city’s many “blindman” massage centers — Aibosen Blindman Massage, a quirky place decorated with hundreds of stuffed animals. For the massage, you wear cotton pajamas provided by the center, and the therapist (most are blind but, oddly, mine was not) massages you over your clothes using a small towel, manipulating traditional pressure points with handwork that can be a bit on the rough side. In fact, on a busy night, the large no-frills treatment rooms with multiple massage beds can resonate with the sound of palms slapping flesh.

I was glad I saved my last night for a 90-minute midnight reflexology treatment in my room at the luxurious Grand Hyatt Beijing. It brought on the deepest most delicious sleep I can remember. The practitioner, Dr. Yang Feng Ling, checked my pulse and skin coloration before giving me a light massage of the feet, lower legs, and calves to relax the muscles before digging deeper into my feet. I couldn’t help nodding off, and woke up only when she discovered a tender spot that required deep manipulation. “Digestion not good, knees bad,” Dr. Yang said. Before leaving, she wrote out my complete diagnosis and recommendations in Chinese, which the concierge translated the next morning. The big surprise? I have too much yang (hot) above the waist and too much yin (cold) below, which Dr. Yang says is common for women of my age due to hormonal imbalance. “Avoid foods that promote too much yin or yang, such as watermelon and pear (too much yin),” she advised, “and consume more lotus seeds and black fungus, which promote a balance of yin and yang.” Coincidentally, for lunch that day I ate a bowl of hot and sour seafood soup, with crab meat, diced shrimp, and sliced black fungus at the Grand Hyatt’s Made in China restaurant, giving me a head start on my balancing act.

Health and well-being are the focus of Grand Hyatt’s underground Club Oasis, which combines a state-of-the-art fitness center and a contemporary style treatment area done with a mix of dry stone and creamy marble walls, and various Asian touches, such as Buddhas overlooking the whirlpools. Strangely, they don’t refer to this elegant area as a spa, even though there are medical doctors and therapists on staff, two treatment rooms, plus separate saunas, steam rooms scented with jasmine, lavender, or lemon, and Jacuzzis for men and women. The centerpiece of this lower level is a dazzling Olympic-sized swimming pool with underwater music, teakwood lounges, and cane armchairs; water- falls, carved statues and pillars, rock grottoes, palm trees, and other tropical plants; and a virtual sky that replicates different weather and lighting — just another Beijing contradiction, an underground swimming pool that looks like it’s outside.

As Beijing’s lightning-fast metamorphosis continues, there’s bound to be a proportionate increase in what seems so contradictory to Western eyes, as well as spas with American-style rejuvenation. Meanwhile, I’m following all my Chinese doctors’ advice, plus taking those Black-Bone Chicken and White Phoenix pills, just in case. The Bone Strengthening Yellow Wine? I gave it to my 76-year-old doorman.

Spa Magazine  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide. © 2006 World Publications, LLC

© 2013 World Publications, LLC


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