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China Inside Tracks
China
03.10.11

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a land of dynasties, emperors and revolutions. Its vast history and innumerable treasures, combined with its recent economic boom, have created even more reasons to visit. No trip to this remarkable country would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Xi’an’s Terracotta Army, but layers of further allure fill its ancient and modern paths. To give you a head start in planning your journey, we’ve compiled a collection of special selections, mostly in and around Beijing and Shanghai, as a starting point for your visit.

Shanghai – Sky-High Confidential

Shanghai - Sky-High Confidential

Atop the Shanghai World Financial Center, tourists flock to the observation platform to see grand views of the city. Here’s a secret: A few floors down, in the same building, you can enjoy the identical vistas without the crowds or entry fee. Take the elevator to the 87th floor, and walk into the lobby of the Park Hyatt, the highest hotel in the world. Settle into the sleek and modern Living Room lounge, order a drink or a meal and enjoy the incredible views overlooking Jin Mao Tower—Shanghai’s iconic landmark. To dine or imbibe even higher, travel up to the 100 Century Avenue Restaurant & Bar on the 91st floor and prepare to be enthralled by the views from its three-story floor-to-ceiling windows.

Shanghai – Eco-Friendly Boutique Hotel

Tucked behind a garden gate in a leafy, residential neighborhood not far from the city’s gleaming high-rises and neon lights, the striking boutique hotel URBN Shanghai delivers a luxurious experience you can feel good about. As China’s first carbon-neutral hotel, it offers unique living spaces fashioned with repurposed wood and stone from old Shanghai properties. While handsome hardwood interiors and a garden with 100-year-old magnolia trees transport travelers to a Zen-like reprieve, the complimentary wireless Internet, heated shower floors and iPod speaker docks remind you that you’re solidly in modern Shanghai.

Shanghai – T8

Shanghai - T8

Shanghai lives up to its reputation as the “Paris of the Orient,” with some of the world’s best cutting-edge cuisine. Many of the restaurants (including Jean Georges and the Cupola) serving this delicious international fare are located in the historic Bund area. Close by in the affluent Xintiandi area, hidden behind a discreet door on a narrow alley, you’ll find T8. Its setting has the ambience of a speakeasy with distinct Asian tradition and cosmopolitan flair. Candles and lanterns glow enticingly behind Chinese screens amidst the sound of flowing water, an open kitchen, traditional artifacts and carefully crafted feng shui.

Beijing & Shanghai – Urban Planning Exhibitions

Beijing & Shanghai - Urban Planning Exhibitions

The rapid and colossal development of China is nothing short of mind-boggling. In a very brief period of time, entire areas of the country have radically transformed from ancient history to modern skyline. To view the fascinating evolution of China’s massive cities from a bird’s-eye perspective, visit the Urban Planning Exhibition Center in Beijing or Shanghai. Both are continuously updated to reflect master planning blueprints. Shanghai’s model (the largest of its kind) also includes a display of how the city will look in 2020. Beijing’s is just as comprehensive, with exhibits displaying transportation systems and environmental, cultural and historical protection. Giant scale models of each urban metropolis illustrate the transformation from past to present to future.

Impressions of China

To experience the intensity and immensity of China’s heritage, catch one of the spectacular outdoor musical productions created by renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (producer of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies). Featuring magnificent settings like Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Liajiang, West Lake in Hangzhou and the Li River in Yangshuo, these Impressions shows are individually designed for each location, using the natural landscape as the stage. Extravagant performances feature a vivid array of participants (up to 600), costumes and music that reflect regional tribes, local legends and traditions. While the Impression show at Wuyi Mountain takes on the culture of tea in honor of the signature Red Robe variety grown in the area, Impression Putuo explores Buddhism and human nature because of its proximity to one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains. In addition to the five locations mentioned here, productions also take place in Hainan.

Hangzhou – Unique Rural Flavor

Hangzhou - Unique Rural Flavor

Serving as the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1276), Hangzhou flourished with restaurants, teahouses and merchants. The city became home to luxurious residences and bountiful culture, a scenic cultural pearl that lured visitors like Marco Polo. Now the capital of the Zhejiang province, Hangzhou is surrounded by hills that play host to lush tea plantations known for producing top-quality Long Jing (Dragon Well) green tea. Hangzhou’s attractions also include the enchanting West Lake and several manmade treasures. Historic Qing He Fang (Hefang Street) features Ming Dynasty buildings, century-old shops and traditional wares including silk, tea, parasols, brocade and fans. You’ll also find the National Silk Museum, the National Tea Museum and Fei Lai Feng, a craggy peak full of caves containing over 300 statues that date back to the 10th century.

Hangzhou – Taiji Teahouse

Hangzhou - Taiji Teahouse

Throughout China, the centuries-old history and tradition of tea comes alive in the country’s teahouses. Not just a casual drink, tea also plays a vital part in Chinese medicine and the dramatic arts. To appreciate this ancient culture, visit a teahouse in Hangzhou to sample the area’s top-quality Long Jing (Dragon Well) green tea. With meticulous attention to quality, style and technique, the Taiji Teahouse on Qing He Fang (Hefang Street) sets itself apart with elaborate dress, long-stem teapots and unique pouring methods. Servers spend one to two years learning the intricate techniques that resemble martial arts poses. In addition, the local Long Jing tea is roasted in front of the teahouse throughout the day. Visitors can also try Qing Teng next to West Lake. The largest teahouse in the city, it’s appointed with elegant Chinese décor. You may eat and drink to your heart’s content for one price during one of two daily sessions: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. to midnight.

Beijing – Aman at Summer Palace

Beijing - Aman at Summer Palace

One of the city’s premiere attractions, Beijing’s regal Summer Palace once reigned as a summer retreat for Qing-Dynasty (1644–1911) imperials hoping to escape the heat of the Forbidden City. Book a stay at the majestic Aman Hotel, and the gardens of the palace become your backyard. Explore one of the tranquil inner courtyards adjacent to the East Gate, which will transport you to a world of spacious balance. View the historic dwellings once used by guests awaiting an audience with the Empress. Afterwards, wander through the intricate pathways and formal gardens, ending up at the Summer Palace, which hosts the largest and most well-preserved Qing-Dynasty imperial garden in Beijing.

Beijing – Markets & Snack Streets

Beijing - Markets & Snack Streets

There’s nothing like a local market to immerse you in the aromas and flavors of a country. The Panjiayuan Antique Market in Beijing offers excellent foraging in a sea of ancient treasures. Chinese markets also provide the best in local eats—snacks are a specialty in Beijing. Try crayfish or spicy lobster amidst the red lanterns of Gui Street, or wander through the snack streets of Wanfujing and the Donghuamen Night Market, where animated vendors offer such delicacies as deep-fried crickets, seahorse, scorpion, centipedes and silk worms. Don’t worry—most treats are labeled in both English and Chinese, and most vendors speak a bit of English.

Beijing – Stone Boat Café

Beijing - Stone Boat Café

Take a reprieve from buzzing Beijing and head to Ritan Park in the Chaoyang District to find the Stone Boat Café. A quiet walk on meandering paths takes you to the reproduction Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) boat bar, which sits on a jetty jutting out into the lake. Take a seat and contemplate the peace of nature and feng shui. According to Chinese tradition, the curving pathways of the park serve to confound roaming evil spirits and ghosts, who can only travel in straight lines. Free wi-fi along with tasty snacks, good coffee, generous portions of wine and an outdoor terrace make this a local draw. Although it’s in Beijing’s city center, you’d never know it.

Beijing – 798 Art District

Beijing - 798 Art District

Reigning as China’s political and cultural capital through several dynasties, Beijing is home to some of the country’s greatest treasures—and a thriving art community. Springing up a decade ago on the grounds of a former military complex, the vast 798 Art District is a modern haven of contemporary sculptures, studios, galleries, restaurants and bars. Highly creative and inventive visual displays give visitors a sense of modern China and attract a bevy of young people. Although the government keeps artistic expression under close watch, the 798 District has established international recognition and acclaim for its concept of blending urban culture and living space in a historic location. Exhibitions feature both Chinese and international artists.

Beijing – Houhai Hutongs

Beijing - Houhai Hutongs

Behind the stone walls of Beijing’s narrow alleyways, visitors will find traditional courtyard residences known as siheyuan. Hutongs are the narrow streets or alleys formed by lines of siheyuan. In ancient times, emperors arranged Beijing’s residential areas by societal rank. Imperial kinsmen, officials and aristocrats lived in the hutongs nearest the Forbidden City to the east and west, while merchants and ordinary citizens made up the narrower passageways to the north and south. Arranged in a quadrangle (four houses around a center courtyard), the homes of the wealthy featured front and back gardens as well as spacious quarters with beautifully carved roof beams and pillars. In contrast, the quadrangles of the commoners were populated with low houses and small gates. Certain tours offer visitors the chance to eat lunch with a local family in their hutong. You can also take a rickshaw ride around the hutongs of the idyllic Houhai (Back Lakes) area for a glimpse of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) courtyard homes that belonged to imperial court officials.

Beijing – Temple of Heaven

Beijing - Temple of Heaven

Three times as large as the Forbidden City, Beijing’s Temple of Heaven was created to showcase honor, ceremony and sacrifice. It was also designated by Chinese emperors as the sacrificial altar for heaven. During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties, the emperor and his imperial entourage moved from the Forbidden City to the Temple twice yearly to worship and pray for good harvests. Rich symbolism and Chinese cosmological beliefs complement the layout, structures and walls, with circles representing heaven and squares denoting earth. China’s largest complex of sacrificial structures also includes an exercise playground designed for seniors. Plan a dawn visit to see Beijing retirees fan dancing, performing bar work, playing jianzi (a type of hacky sack game), singing and practicing calligraphy.

Beijing – The Forbidden City

Beijing - The Forbidden City

So named because commoners and uninvited nobility were not allowed entry, the Forbidden City is the largest palace complex of its kind, drawing millions of visitors to its sacred grounds. A moat and 26-foot-high walls with four gates and towers surround the imperial treasure, which contains 980 buildings, 9,999 rooms and over 2 million square feet. Carefully designed to reflect the Chinese cosmic scheme of the universe and philosophical beliefs, the Forbidden City served as the stage for important events that influenced the course of Chinese history. Symbolizing the royal family, the color yellow dominates the complex. Home to the most well-preserved pieces of Chinese traditional architecture as well as the Palace Museum, it reportedly took an estimated 1 million workers to build. Other interesting Forbidden City facts:

  • The film The Last Emperor was the first—and last—movie allowed permission to film there.
  • A Starbucks opened there in 2000 and so enraged local residents and media that it eventually closed in 2007.
  • A pair of souvenir shops there were forced out after they refused to admit Chinese citizens so they could price-gouge foreigners.

Beijing – Peking Duck

Beijing - Peking Duck

One of the country’s most famous dishes, Peking Duck has been prepared in China since the Imperial Era (when Beijing was still known as Peking). First cited in the 14th century, this dish reached its full, roasted glory during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), when it was featured on imperial court menus. Palace chefs—prestigious masters of their craft—perfected it. Recipes of the emperor’s cuisine were often smuggled out into the streets. This delicious duck dish later gained popularity with the upper classes of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Following the fall of the last dynasty, Forbidden City chefs started their own restaurants. Establishments that specialize in Peking Duck are now found throughout Beijing; try the perfectly prepared delicacy at Da Dong Roast Duck in the Dongcheng district. Chic and well-lit, it’s one of the only nonsmoking restaurants in Beijing. Per tradition, servers carve the duck at your table after it’s roasted either in a brick oven or over an open fire. Thinly sliced, juicy morsels with crispy skin are then rolled into crepe pancakes and stuffed into small sesame buns served with plum sauce, scallions and cucumbers.

Beijing – Yonghe Lama Temple

Beijing - Yonghe Lama Temple

A mammoth 85-foot-tall Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood presides over the peaceful, spiritual grounds of the Yonghe Lama Temple, the largest and most well-preserved monastery in China. Originally built for court eunuchs during the Qing Dynasty in 1694, it was later sanctioned with imperial status and became a monastery and residence for Tibetan Buddhist monks. Still in use as a working monastic complex for the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism, Yonghe Lama’s holy structures are filled with precious antiques and artwork, as well as monks and visitors praying and lighting incense. The world’s largest, the wooden Buddha takes up three stories inside the temple complex, which is located in the center of booming Beijing.

Beijing – Bird’s Nest & Water Cube

Beijing - Bird's Nest

Shining brightly in Olympic history, Beijing still glows with pride over the 2008 Summer Games. Along with the strong showing of its athletes, the country’s grand architecture also graced the world stage. Taking inspiration from Chinese ceramics, architects conceived a 40,000-ton steel framework to surround the giant National Stadium, built specifically for the occasion. Novel and radical spatial effects and high-design elements made it unique. Nicknamed “Bird’s Nest” for its appearance, the engineering marvel holds 80,000 spectators (91,000 during the Olympics). Since the 2008 games, it has hosted car races and an indoor skiing park. If you visit, be sure to see the neighboring aquatics venue, nicknamed “Water Cube.” Mesmerizing by night, the stunning rectangular blue box gives the impression of being full of water, lit from within. During Chinese festivals, the colors are modified to form fish and other designs. Go inside to the Bubble Bar to touch the unique panels.

Beijing – The Art of Cloisonné

Beijing = The Art of Cloisonné

The ancient Byzantine decorative technique known as cloisonné first reached China during the 14th century. This unique art form involves soldering or gluing wire to metalwork objects to form compartments (cloison in French), which are filled with enamel and fired in a kiln. Priceless pieces from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) feature the predominant sapphire-blue tone developed for Emperor Jingtai. The craft reached its artistic apex during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), when the method was enhanced and expanded to other types of objects (bowls, chopsticks, daily necessities) with more delicate colors. As the cradle of Chinese cloisonné, Beijing is the best place to tour an enamel factory to witness the manufacturing process and see the dazzling colors and elaborate designs.

Yangshuo – Land of Poets

Yangshuo - Land of Poets

Sailing down the Li River through the misty vales and rounded peaks of China’s Guangxi province is an experience in peace and poetry. The legendary karst landscape has inspired numerous artists, painters and poets. Take a three-hour cruise from Guilin through the dreamy landscape before checking into a small inn like the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat. Settle into simple living and gaze at the emerald radiance of the countryside. Bike to a local market, kayak or raft down the Li, explore surrounding villages or stone caves, and sample or learn to cook regional local dishes like Ganguo fish and dried bamboo shoots.

Chengdu – Protecting Giant Pandas

Chengdu - Protecting Giant Pandas

China has set up over 30 reserves to protect the habitats of one of its national treasures, the giant panda. The massive earthquake in 2008 severely damaged the giant panda sanctuary at the well-known Wolong National Nature Reserve, burying the bamboo forest under rock and mud. Fortunately, conservationists transferred most of the pandas to other locations. The Chendgu Panda Base in the Sichuan province is one of the best places to see and support these unique creatures. As a breeding center, its first priority is to ensure the legacy of this threatened species continues, while the surrounding natural habitat provides a satisfying visit for people and a pleasant stay for pandas.

Suzhou – Gardens of Heaven on Earth

Suzhou - Gardens of Heaven on Earth

Hailed by Marco Polo as the “Venice of the Orient,” Suzhou is a scenic city of silk and canals. It’s also home to the country’s best examples of Chinese classical gardens. Finer in form than Imperial gardens, which stress pomposity and display, classical Chinese gardens are a study in basic, natural elements fused with literary allusions, ancient philosophy and ideology. Masterfully designed and ingeniously built to achieve simple elegance, these artful landscapes and waterscapes reflect classic feng-shui concepts and the intricate beauty revered by traditional Chinese aesthetics. Spring is an excellent time to visit a few of Suzhou’s nine supreme garden treasures, all listed as World Heritage Sites.

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