Destinations

Why Now Is the Time to Visit China

The time is right to really see the country behind the headlines-its restored historic treasures, the cutting-edge art, and all the thrills of a rising new world.
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There is a small enclosed garden in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s 200-acre red-walled, yellow-roofed, built-to-intimidate immensity, where between 1420 and 1911 the emperors of China’s last two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing, lived and ruled.

The garden was designed in the 1770s by the fifth Qing emperor, Qianlong, for his pleasure after retirement. Within it, atop a mountain-like rockery of fantastically eroded and pockmarked stones extracted from Lake Tiahu (so-called scholars’ rocks, nature elevated to art, found in gardens, museums, and grand houses all over China), is the Terrace for Gathering Dew. On the little platform, bronze vessels were placed to collect dew, with which the emperor’s morning tea was brewed. Or so the story goes.

The exquisite refinement of the idea stopped me—and made clear, here on my first day in China, that coming to terms with the country’s culture, size, and multifarious-ness would be as challenging, if not as fanciful an endeavor.

“Bad pollution today,” said Joe Liu, my guide in Xi’an, pointing at the unnaturally grayish-yellow, oddly low-hanging sky. I’d never seen anything like it, and I was glad I was able to. Is this our unlivable future?

We most often see China from a distance and through a scrim of largely negative headlines, painted in broad, somber geopolitical strokes: A vast, befogged land of authoritarian rule, crazed urbanization, disregard for the treasures of its past, and rampant environmental destruction. As Austin Zhu, Abercrombie & Kent’s Beijing director, said to me over tea in the lobby of the newly renovated Peninsula Beijing (vaulting white marble anchored by two massive statues of tea drinkers contemplating the tiny cups of the national elixir in their hands), “China has bad PR.” I had been here before, on business. My mission this time is to see the country as a traveler would, for the pleasure and interest of it.

Guy Rubin of Beijing-based Imperial Tours had told me, “Even people who come here on holiday tend to just check it off their list. But China should be like Italy! A place you visit again and again.” It seemed a hypothesis worth testing, especially since China has not only an immeasurably rich past but something Italy does not have—possibly the keys to our collective future. “China has nearly a quarter of the world’s population,” Lorenz Helbling, owner of Shanghai’s seminal ShanghART gallery, pointed out. “So, also, a quarter of the talent. This is the new world.”

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He was talking about art—but not only. My game plan: Three days each in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, which is still the essential travel trifecta, despite the rise of China’s second cities (Chengdu, for one, where the pandas are). And two day trips, one to Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Army (going to China and not seeing this archaeological discovery would be like skipping the Valley of the Kings in Egypt), and one to Hangzhou, to see, among other things, that parklike city’s dreamy, classical-painting-and-poetry-enshrined West Lake.

I wouldn’t be doing much sleeping but when I did it would be at China’s three Peninsula hotels. I wanted to be transported seamlessly from one to the other, and I wanted, too, the balm of Peninsula’s ministrations: The spas, the service, the food, the local knowledge, and (I won’t lie) the Rolls-Royce airport transfers.

BEIJING

“People think China is still undeveloped, but look at the sophistication here,” said Meg Maggio, an American expat and gallery owner (Pe?kin Fine Arts). We were in Beijing’s Indigo mall, of all places. A mall was not on my painstakingly devised itinerary. But according to ancient Chinese belief, bad energy follows straight lines and good energy meanders (hence the zigzagging garden paths and serpentine manmade waterways). I was going with the flow.

La La Land was playing in the mall’s theater. The bookstore was well (and internationally) stocked: Garci?a Ma?rquez, Auster, Rushdie. We passed shops with designer baby clothes and organic Korean beauty products, and the packed ABC Cooking School.

“Happy middle-class wives!” said Maggio. Multitudes have been lifted out of rural poverty at startling speed—hence the ubiquitous monster apartment towers. As Anne-Cecile Noique, a China expert and gallerist, would tell me, “Time has another dimension here. What you’re able to do in China in 20 years is immense. Twenty years in Europe and America? Not so much.”

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We passed a glittering Tesla showroom. “Teslas are huge here,” said Maggio, their owners the first generation of China’s mega-rich and their millennial children, the so-called “millionaire babies.” But eco-consciousness now crosses economic strata and is government-incentivized: Buyers of all plug-in cars receive a rebate of up to $15,000. At the mall’s Wall Street English school, students clustered around a large conference table, on the eve of the country’s biggest holiday, the Lunar New Year. They were clearly betting on their futures being global. Small wonder: China shares a border, one is repeatedly reminded here, with more countries than any other—14. “We Americans,” Maggio said, “vastly underestimate the power of geography, in our isolated splendor.”

The exquisite refinement of the idea stopped me—and made clear, here on my first day in China, that coming to terms with the country’s culture, size, and multifarious-ness would be as challenging, if not as fanciful an endeavor.

I climbed the Great Wall, at its Ming-era Mutianyu section, 90 minutes by car from Beijing. The misty mountain ridges and the crenelated ramparts snaking along them as far as the eye could see were beautiful. But what struck me most powerfully up there was the futility of walls. The regime blocks all social media, but back in town barriers of all sorts seemed to be falling. At the new Christie’s Auction House in Beijing, a well-attired multigenerational crowd had assembled for the first-ever showing of a Rothko painting in China.“Because Asian participation in global art sales has now reached 31 percent,” Jinqing Cai, the chairman of Christie’s China, told me, “we no longer bring leftovers here for a preview, but the tops.”

Beijing’s latest must-see edifice, developer George Wong’s Parkview Green, a glass-encased, multilevel Louvre-on-steroids, is a startling mashup of art (Wong’s collection), commerce (shops, restaurants, bars, hotels), and cutting- edge sustainable construction. Mia Yu, the architectural historian showing me about, could not resist quibbling about the art, which includes a striped revolving Buddha, a mechanized bull’s head, and a giant model of a submarine (plus something that cannot be mentioned here: “Rich people should be managed.”

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Not all of them. I had arranged through A&K to see a restored private courtyard home in a hutong, as the city’s few remaining neighborhoods of narrow streets and traditional one-story houses are called. Its owner, Yang Jing, an elegant woman who once ran a coal company and now owns the boutique Jing’s Residence hotel in the historic town of Pingyao, served me smooth, 40-year-old puer tea from Yunnan province while I took in the beauty all around: Up-turned rooftops, a smattering of Chinese antiques, two red metal chairs positioned just so beneath a leafless tree, and, extending the full length of the courtyard, a recumbent contemporary white sculpture of two giant lotus flowers. To live like this...

Jing explained the spirit of the Chinese courtyard house. “It is designed to make you feel the seasons,” she said. “That is why the rooms are not connected—so you have to walk outside into the courtyard to get from one to another.” So much classical Chinese art relishes the elements. Lady with Fan in the Autumn Breeze is the title of a charming Ming-era ink-on-paper scroll I’d seen.

In the chill of that February evening, I found myself at the Yan Whiskey Bar, one small room in a tucked-away courtyard house. Just a polished wood counter, a few sleek bar stools, three black tie–attired bartenders, and behind them a wall of imported whiskeys and Scotches from Japan. Nightcap nirvana.

While lounging I seriously pondered doing nothing but agonizing over which of the overwhelming number of recommended restaurants I should try in the time I had. (Beijing has nothing like Shanghai’s culinary scene.)

XI’AN

“Bad pollution today,” said Joe Liu, my guide in Xi’an, pointing at the unnaturally grayish-yellow, oddly low-hanging sky. I’d never seen anything like it, and I was glad I was able to. Is this our unlivable future?

I was here for only seven hours, although a history buff could spend a week. Xi’an is the cradle of Chinese civilization, the country’s capital from its unification in 221 BC until 907 AD, and the terminus of the Silk Road in the city’s heyday under the open-minded and inclusive Tang dynasty, when China was the most prosperous and powerful country in the world.

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Some 72 emperors are buried in greater Xi’an’s 5,000 square miles, but I flew here for the funerary extravaganza of Qin Shi Huang, the warlike first emperor, who brutally created the footprint of the modern Chinese state. (Empire building was apparently no prettier than wrestling a country from underdevelopment.) He died in 210 BC, a spectacularly paranoid man: His 8,000-strong Terracotta Army was meant to guard him in the afterlife. (Not surprisingly, it was also he who began building the Great Wall.)


A tiny fraction of Emperor Qin Shi Huang's terracotta army

The facts about the warriors are well known. They are life-size. They stand in battle-ready formation facing east, where danger supposedly lay. They were accidentally discovered by farmers in 1974. And each is distinct from the others in everything: Physiognomy, hairstyle, clothes, even the lines in the palms of their hands. But no photographs prepare you for the vastness of Pit 1, which is about the size of two football fields.

Still, what stayed with me most strongly was one detail. In a glass case in the museum adjacent to the ongoing excavation sites is a figure of a kneeling archer. His handsome face is young, his ancient Chinese version of a man-bun is slightly askew, his lips form a Mona Lisa smile, and when you walk around him you see the intricately patterned sole of his right shoe making an indentation in his buttock as he kneels. A young man in all his unidealized specificity must have posed for this. You hear the whoosh of millennia. 

A quick visit, in the heart of Xi’an’s old walled city, to the tatty but magnificent 8th-century Great Mosque, which is remarkable for its Chinese-inspired architecture (the minaret looks like a pagoda, and I sat on a Qing Dynasty bed while talking to the Imam), and then it was back to the airport for my flight to Shanghai. “If you return,” Liu said, “don’t come during the first week of May or October. Those are both national holidays. Chinese use their elbows and Westerners end up seeing nothing. We feel bad about that.”

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SHANGHAI

“Chinese society is ancient, but we are also very, very young,” said Shanghai fashion designer Lu Kun. Nowhere did I feel that youth as keenly as in Shanghai, the glamorous debutante-with-a-past of China’s cities. We were aboard the Peninsula hotel’s yacht on the Huangpu River, which meanders to the East China Sea and neatly divides central Shanghai in two. On the western bank lies what locals call Puxi, with its famous stretch of now-spruced-up neoclassical and Art Deco buildings, the Bund; on the eastern side is Pudong, the wall of skyscrapers erected on what were fields less than 20 years ago.

Both banks are the most glamorous and photographed urban panoramas in China. I had stunning views of them from my corner terrace suite at the Peninsula, and while lounging I seriously pondered doing nothing but agonizing over which of the overwhelming number of recommended restaurants I should try in the time I had. (Beijing has nothing like Shanghai’s culinary scene.)

Instead, with cultural historian Patrick Cranley, I went for a walkabout of: The former mercantile palaces along the Bund, erected from the mid-19th century to the 1930s on profits from this port city’s vast trade in porcelain, silk, and opium; the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (they began arriving in Shanghai between 1933 and 1941, when it was the only truly international and open city in the world); and the leafy streets of the former French Concession, where you can still spot old men in berets, the cafes sell croissants and eclairs, and signs used to say no admission for Chinese and dogs.

I took in the buzz of the renovated Xin Tian Di area, where Shanghai’s fashion week is held, and then on my last afternoon found myself in an unexpected scene: The vast, still barely built art district called West Bund. “Not only is the government supporting arts education throughout China,” Maggio had told me back in Beijing, “it is providing incentives for wealthy property developers, especially in Shanghai, to open private museums. It’s not that culture is the end goal—they’re using art to promote cities—but the effect is the same.”

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The Shanghai skyline

In addition to a number of important galleries (I loved Lorenz Helbling’s ShanghART), the West Bund is anchored already by two such major private institutions, the Yuz and the Long. The latter has 172,000 square feet of exhibition space. “And it’s an absolutely smashing collection,” said Kevin Ching, the Hong Kong–based CEO of Sotheby’s Asia. “It’s the expression of one woman’s vision and mission.” I met briefly with Mme Wang Wei, the co-founder and director. “My husband likes ancient art,” she said. “I like the art of the last 100 years and started collecting 30 years ago. The National Museum let me build this—for the glory of the country. And now I’m looking at young talent from all over.”

HANGZHOU

Marco Polo described Hangzhou as “without a doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world,” and today it is still considered one of the prettiest in China, its coal-burning factories shuttered in the late 1990s and trees planted on much of its land—a vast urban garden, in effect, with one of China’s largest Buddhist temple complexes nestled in a green valley and a strong economy driven by e-commerce and IT. (Alibaba is headquartered here, as is Huawei.) China’s movers and shakers, such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma, have homes along the shores of West Lake, and they’re channeling, perhaps, the literati of centuries past, the gentlemen-scholars who spent their leisure time writing poetry, painting, and conversing in Hangzhou’s gardens and teahouses. I was ready—I arrived for the day by bullet train from Shanghai—for at least a quick taste of that.

There was something almost prelapsarian about the Dragon Well Manor restaurant, set amid the hills and tea plantations on Hangzhou’s outskirts. I walked toward its eight pavilions and terraces (private dining rooms only the way most Chinese like it decorated in minimalist Ming Dynasty style) over winding paths and small stone bridges next to stands of bamboo and bonsai trees, skirting little streams and lily pad–covered ponds. The restaurant’s owner, Dai Jianjun, a wealthy former businessman, has made it his mission to serve the delicate cuisine of the so- called Lower Yangtze region using only local, organic, seasonal, and often foraged ingredients, which are prepared according to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. (The place, said to be China’s first “destination” restaurant, has a cult following, so reserve well in advance.)

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Hu Xue Yan House, Hangzhou

After 13 tasty amuse-bouches (there is no a? la carte menu; you are presented with the chef’s inspirations of that day), I ate soy milk soup with baby shrimp, pork belly with eggs and steamed sprouts, hairy crab, sea cucumber, bamboo shoots with salted ham, bu fish soup with pickled cabbage, peach-flavored bird’s nest, sticky rice with nuts and red bean sauce, and rice cake with brown sugar. There was much more, but I was too stupefied to write it all down and afterward collapsed outside on my private terrace to listen, as I imagined the literati would have, to birdsong.

West Lake, framed by hills and dotted with pavilions, was lovely. “I was worried you might not like it,” my guide, Aaron Wang, said, “because some foreigners don’t get it. It’s the China of watercolor paintings—not green but sort of gray.” It was a subtle canvas against which a swath of pink from an early blooming plum tree, or a glimpse of a girl’s bright red coat as she walked under weeping willows on a causeway, were all the more memorable and stirring.

At the Mei Jia Wu tea village, a stern but pink-cheeked lady with remarkably glowing skin gave me a lecture about the history of tea in China and the antioxidant qualities of the village’s Dragon Well green tea, the country’s most prized (and accordingly priced) leaves. At the end of which I parted happily with an extraordinary amount of cash for a year’s supply (you keep it frozen) of the top variety, Emperor’s Tea, which is culled from the first spring harvest. About tea bags, even ones labeled organic, she pronounced, “That’s junk, dust left over from the harvesting process. Real tea is powerful medicine.”

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HONG KONG

I had gotten the big picture already, first from the Peak to which I’d taken the tram (touristy but very Hong Kong) for those famed views from Hong Kong Island toward Kowloon and the New Territories, and then, for an even more dramatic perspective, from the Peninsula’s own helicopter, of Victoria Harbor crisscrossed with the white wakes of boats; skyscrapers erupting against steep green mountains, hiking trails on their ridges; and, beyond, the many islands that fan out into the glistening South China Sea. It’s as glamorous a landscape as there is—and glamorous, too, when seen at night from a wooden junk (I’d booked a short cruise from M Yachts), the black water of the deep harbor impressively choppy, the office and apartment towers animated by a colorful light show.

Next morning, in the Kowloon flower market, I was entranced by the birds—or rather the bird men, retired gents who arrive here early in the day to purchase birds, arrange playdates for the ones they own (hanging cages next to each other), and buy such bird treats as live crickets and such cage accoutrements as tiny matching sets of porcelain bowls. Some come simply to commune with their feathered friends in the pleasant, flower-scented surroundings, gazing into their eyes and listening to their song. The bird men’s dedication is at once social and contemplative. “It’s a tradition that started on the mainland with the literati scholars back in the Qing Dynasty,” said Nevin Lim, the cultural historian of Hong Kong who brought me here.


Afternoon tea in the Peninsula's lobby

Lim and I then strolled Nan Lian Garden and the adjoining Chi Lin Nunnery, a gorgeous Buddhist complex from the 1930s recently rebuilt by master craftsmen from the mainland using only prized cypress wood and the Tang-era nailless dowel method.“Who would think,” said Lim, “that in the middle of the Kowloon bustle there would be something like this?” I could barely tear myself away; the other religious sites we had visited, the Taoist Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin and Man Mo temples, with their carnival-like atmosphere, had none of this soothing serenity.

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At the tony Duddell’s for lunch—the interiors are by British designer Ilse Crawford, the Cantonese food is Michelin-starred, the revolving display of Chinese artworks on the walls comes from museum-quality private (and discreetly nameless) collections—I found myself not so much in a restaurant as in “a place that aims to offer a living experience of art,”said Yim Tom, the art expert with whom I was having lunch. “It’s about enjoying good cuisine, good art, and the good conversations that flow from that.” But was the experience any richer or more sophisticated than the street food crawl (dumplings, egg custard pies, bamboo noodles, buns filled with freshly baked pork) through Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong’s poorest areas?

On my last night in Hong Kong (and China) there was bird plumage all about at a nightspot called Ophelia, the brainchild of Ashley Sutton, described as the reigning impresario of Asia’s trendiest restaurants and bars. Ophelia’s bar was a mock giant bird cage, and my drink—the Jade Cat, a cocktail of Japanese whiskey and bitter green tea liqueur—arrived in a miniature bird cage. Women on staff wandered around befeathered, striking poses.

The night was disorienting. There was much truth in what Yim Tom had told me about China earlier at the Galerie du Monde on Duddell Street. In Chinese art, she said, “whether classical or contemporary, perspective is ambiguous. Everything moves and shifts. The Chinese look at the world in very different ways. And there are such huge changes now. We have no idea yet what shape the future will take.”

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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