When my Beijing-based friend suggested we explore China together, I jumped at the chance to visit this ancient civilisation for the first time. Friends since our London university days, Jayne and I set out on an epic journey of glamour, cultural serenity, adventure and historic splendour.
Arriving in Shanghai at dusk. I was welcomed in English by a well-dressed man who offered me a taxi. Eager to practise my Mandarin phrases. I greeted him with “Nĭ hău” and negotiated the fare. Jayne had advised that bartering’s expected in China, but “don’t pay more than half the asking price and always be nice!”. He drove me to Swissotel Grand Shanghai, in the central Jing’an district, where Jayne awaited me. We toasted our reunion with champagne and Chinese delicacies, while marvelling at the city’s glittering skyline from the 27th floor.
In four days we explored much of Shanghai, beginning with the Jing’an Temple, the oldest Buddhist shrine in the city where the predominantly Buddhist Chinese population worship. We admired the elegant Shanghaians along the fashionable West Nanjing Rd, arriving at the former French Concession with its European-style villas on tree-lined streets. After black rice with red curry fishcakes and mixed greens at Hunter Gatherer, a trendy “seed-to-table” eatery, we grabbed a taxi to theHunter Gatherer for “designer” bags, silk scarves and traditional gifts.
A taxi ride in China isn’t a relaxing experience. Driving seems frenetic, until you observe that underlying the braking, hooting and sudden acceleration, there’s an innate control and no sign of aggression or road rage. Jayne surmised that this is due to the Chinese people’s absence of ego. They’re also proud of their heritage and love exploring their country; local tourists are everywhere. They graciously invited us to pose for selfies with them on the glass viewing deck of the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower, 259m above the city.
A cruise along the Huangpu River and Glamtinis at Glam Bar followed, with dinner on the terrace at M-on-the-Bund – mandatory for taking in the spectacular lights and sights of this modern and traditional city. Savouring succulent Sichuan salmon with beetroot and pickled cucumbers, we saluted Shanghai, feeling we’d only skimmed its surface.
July’s sweltering in China and I welcomed the cool 45-minute train journey to Hangzhou, one of the seven ancient capitals of the country, described by Marco Polo as the “City of Heaven”. Arriving at the Amanfayun resort at nightfall, the front office manager welcomed us with delicate-tasting Longjing tea. Then a lantern-bearing porter led us along a stone pathway to our spacious quarters. Later, at the resort spa, I soaked in a circular wooden tub filled with warm, fragrant water before succumbing to a bamboo massage: a flowing technique using heated bamboo, rolling and kneading the body with aromatherapy oils. Heaven.
Created as a traditional Chinese village, the 14ha Amanfayun resort lies in a hidden valley, surrounded by ancient tea plantations, forests and bamboo groves, with a stream running through it. A respectful hush is observed on the stone pathway, where we passed saffron-robed monks from seven neighbouring Buddhist temples. Joining the crowds of pilgrims to the revered Lingyin Temple, founded in 326 AD, we were awestruck by the largest sitting Buddha statue in China and the dozens of laughing Buddha statues carved into the rock of Felai Feng hillside, a pool of shimmering koi beneath them.
I indulged in a traditional Chinese breakfast at the Amanfayun Steam House restaurant – braised beef udon noodle soup, deep-fried Chinese dough fritters and a chicken and bamboo bun – while Jayne preferred a hearty English breakfast at The Restaurant.
Exploring Hangzhou, we took a trip on West Lake, a Unesco World Heritage Site in the centre of the city, reclining on an ornate wooden boat while our oarsman sculled us past historic bridges, pagodas and botanical gardens. We shopped on Qing Hefang St, a 19th-century tourist boulevard, purchased decorative scissors from Zhangxiaoquan Scissor Store, herbal remedies from the Tang Museum of Chinese Medicine and a pure silk mandarin-style dress. That evening we dined beside the lake on sticky sauce duck with lotus root, beans and mushrooms.
A three-and-a-half-hour bus trip to Huang Shan, reputedly the most beautiful mountain range in China, took us through shantytowns and rural villages – “the other face of China”, said Jayne. We booked into the Cheng Jin Boutique Hotel and early the following morning, we ascended the “Back Mountain”, unnervingly suspended in a small, glass-enclosed cable car that rose sharply to 1 650m. Extraordinary scenery surrounded us: sheer rock cliffs, ancient pine forests and bamboo groves. Stepping out of the cable car, we were surprised to find a network of concrete paths and stairways, clearly signposted with distances between peaks and viewing points. Consulting with a group of tourists, we were delighted by their willingness to understand us via a translation app on their phones. Thus began our 6,5km hike along steep, narrow steps and disturbingly high bridges with sheer drops on each side. Not for the faint-hearted.
Reaching “Beginning-to-Believe Peak”, we were reminded of why we came: its hauntingly beautiful landscape, portrayed in the award-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A hot shower, followed by a hearty meal of peanut chicken, spicy rice and greens at the Cheng Jin Hotel, was the perfect ending to an exhilarating day.
A six-and-a-half-hour bullet train journey to Beijing passed floodswept plains and rice paddies, villages and modern towns, low-flying at 300km/h. Jayne had all the addresses of our destinations clearly printed in Mandarin to hand to taxi drivers. We pulled up at the dramatic bronze façade of the Waldorf Astoria in the heart of Beijing and were received like empresses arriving at the nearby Imperial Palace. We took afternoon tea in the hotel’s avant-garde Peacock Alley with champagne, oysters and red velvet dainties, surrounded by artworks to rival those of any metropolitan museum.
I’ll never forget my first glimpses of the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square, from the sidecar of a 1970s retro motorcycle at sunset, with the wind in my hair. Driven by Gael Thoreau, founder of Sideways Beijing Exploring Tours, Jayne and I took turns riding pillion and sidecar, gallivanting around central Beijing for the next three hours, no helmets required. It was a thrilling way to discover the city, cruising through the traditional hutongs (alleyways), stopping for champagne at the famed Temple Restaurant Beijing (TRB) and rushing along the pulsating Houhai lake area. A relaxing swim, then extravagant cocktails in the WA Peacock Bar sealed my first day in the capital.
Jayne lives in Beijing and I was given a peek into her world; the Silk Market for watches, pearls, art and silks, where skilful haggling is essential; the magnificent Lama Temple complex; Atmosphere, the highest bar in Beijing, for amazing views and pricey drinks; and the Peking Opera, a bewildering, but highly entertaining affair.
We transferred to the sumptuous Rosewood Hotel in cosmopolitan Sanlitun district, with access to the Manor Club – an exclusive lounge with complimentary wining and dining benefits – befitting our empress status. In need of some R&R, we headed for the Senses Spa, with its glass-roofed swimming pool, and indulged in an ancient Tui-Na healing massage. After wandering the super-cool shops of Sanlitun, Jayne insisted on a whiskey cocktail at Miles Bar, before heading back to the Rosewood’s fifth-floor Mei Bar to dance the night away with Beijing’s beautiful people.
We’d reserved the pièce de résistance for the end: a private tour of the Great Wall at Jinshanling, one of the best-preserved sections and a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Beijing, with fewer crowds than other parts. After a cable-car ride to the ridge of the mountain, we walked 200m to the Little Jinshan Tower and climbed the steep stone steps to finally emerge on the Great Wall. It was a gooseflesh-inducing moment I’ll always remember, both eerie and astonishing.
China is epic. I’m converted. I crave more of its beauty, heritage and cutting-edge sophistication, but mostly I’m drawn to its charming people. Jayne suggests springtime for the colourful blossoms and I must do Chengdu, the Silk Road and the Three Gorges…
This article appears in the October issue of Sawubona magazine, download here – for free.
Images courtesy Lori Booth and iStock.