Discovering China: A Beginner’s Guide
From Beijing’s fashion scene to Hangzhou’s rolling tea fields, we’re leading you to the best of China with insider tips that make experiencing the country easy for first-time visitors.
In China, the number eight is viewed as particularly lucky, to the point where people are willing to pay extra to make it part of their telephone number or license plate. It’s auspicious, then, that there are now eight Four Seasons properties in China, with the newest hotel in Shenzhen scheduled to open in mid-2013. As China’s fascinating, complex and diverse landscape continues to draw greater numbers of first-time visitors, we’ve consulted each property’s concierge team to highlight its top recommendation for new travellers.
Find the best shopping in Beijing.
Discovering the design world, both for fashion and home, is one of the best ways to get your finger on the pulse of a city. In the fast-paced, fast-growing capital city of Beijing, be sure to check out emerging Chinese designers at boutique stores in areas like Gulou and the Central Business District (CBD). Standouts include Dong Liang Studio—high-quality, limited-edition fashion by hip young designers like Uma Wang and TBA, a line handpicked by Dong Liang Studio founders Charles Wang and Nan Lang. The Wuhao Curated Shop, so cool that it doesn’t have a sign, features the latest creations in furniture, lighting, jewellery, ceramics, art and fashion from more than 100 Chinese and international artists. All are changed seasonally in gallery-worthy tableaux by director Isabelle Pascal.
Discover Guangzhou’s heritage.
Understanding the true Guangzhou means exploring its port city heritage. Shamian Island, a tiny sandbank island on the city’s Pearl River, linked by bridges to the mainland, was divided into French and British concessions in the 19th century. Today, its quiet streets (very few cars are allowed) and broad boulevards are lined with massive old trees and slightly shabby but grand European-style churches, embassies and residences. The island is also a popular gathering spot for locals to practice tai chi, play the Chinese version of Hacky Sack or pose for wedding photos.
Tour Hangzhou’s tea fields.
Tea works on all levels in China—social, medical, spiritual, cultural—so be sure to visit Hangzhou’s famed Longjing or “Dragon Well” tea fields. On a tour of the leafy fields in this dreamy and beautiful part of China, you’ll learn how the premium green tea is gathered by hand and placed in wide baskets worn on the harvester’s backs. The tour also includes a visit to the National Tea Museum, which offers an astounding variety of ancient tools, pottery and ceramics, as well as daily tea ceremony demonstrations. You’ll also be invited to tea farmers’ homes to sample local specialties such as West Lake carp in sweet vinegar sauce, shrimp with Longjing tea, and West Lake water shield soup (made with a type of aquatic plant).
Eat your way through Hong Kong.
The best way to get to know the real Hong Kong is to eat and to walk, delving into traditional neighbourhoods that can still be found amid the gleaming skyscrapers. Little Adventures in Hong Kong, helmed by a group of plugged-in food, travel and lifestyle journalists and bloggers, is your go-to tour. Tours are limited to just three people and can be customized (for example, you can do a “won-ton-athon”). One offering: a waterfront tour to Shau Kei Wan at the east end of Hong Kong Island, home to an amazing outdoor market and the best fish-ball noodles in town. You’ll also make a short ferry crossing to an authentic fishing village that would be right at home in 1930.
Cook up a traditional dish in Macau.
A Portuguese colony for centuries, Macau has an exotic history perfectly encapsulated in some of the world’s first fusion cuisine. Learn how to make it yourself, guided by a Macanese private chef. Start with a shopping expedition to the Red Market, a three-storey “wet” market where fresh seafood is brought in twice a day. After you’ve chosen ultra-fresh ingredients like sole, geoduck and water spinach, return to a private kitchen to prepare local favourites like home-style minced pork or steamed catch of the day with soybean sauce.
Get artsy in Pudong, Shanghai.
Sleek, modern and vibrating with energy, it’s only fitting that the Pudong area of Shanghai has an equally exciting emerging art scene. Opened in late 2012 and housed in a massive seven-storey former power station built in 1897, the Power Station of Art (PSA) is China’s first state-run contemporary art museum. Works from both Chinese and international artists are on display and range from flying sculptures on the roof terrace to multimedia pieces to a recently opened Andy Warhol exhibit. (Bonus: no admission fee except for special exhibitions.) It’s also the new home of the citywide art festival Shanghai Biennale.
Motorcycle through Shanghai.
Spend any time in bustling Shanghai and you’ll soon see locals on vintage motorcycles with sidecars threading their way through the streets and alleys. Through the tour company Shanghai Insiders, you can get a different perspective on the city. The fleet consists of 30 vintage bikes (gearheads will recognize them as Chang Jiang 750s, which are modelled after the Russian Ural sidecars, which are in turn replicas of 1930s BMWs) driven by professional, English-speaking drivers. Customize your tour by chatting with your driver beforehand, and you’ll see non-touristy neighbourhoods and iconic sights, all with the wind in your hair and a grin on your face.
Play golf in Shenzhen.
Shenzhen is a powerhouse for enterprise and commerce—and everyone knows that a good deal of both work and play gets done on the golf course. It’s not surprising, then, that Shenzhen is home to the world’s largest golf club, Mission Hills, where you can perfect your swing on one of seven 18-hole courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Vijay Singh and Chinese champion Zhang Lianwei, among others.
What to know before you go: Insider tips from Four Seasons Hotel Beijing
- Fast and comfortable, China’s network of electric high-speed or “bullet” trains means navigating the huge country is that much easier. The official ticket site is Chinese-only and accepts only Chinese credit cards, so your best bet is to consult your travel agent or hotel for assistance. Tickets can be booked up to 20 days in advance.
- Download Pleco, a free translation app for iPhone, iPad and Android. Coolest feature: point your iPhone camera at a printed Chinese word to instantly look up the meaning (you don’t even have to snap a picture). Waygo, for iOS 5 devices only, is similar.
- If an item (food, drink, gift or business card) is passed to you with two hands, make sure to accept it with two hands. This is a sign of respect.