An artful perspective of this rising world in the East
There is a small enclosed garden in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s 80-hectare 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 Taihu—so called scholars’ rocks, nature elevated to art, found in the gardens, museums, and grand houses all over China—is the Terrace for Gathering Dew. Bronze vessels were placed on the little platform to collect dew, with which the emperor’s tea was brewed. Or so the story goes. The exquisite refinement of the idea stopped me, and made clear, on my first day in China, that coming to terms with the country’s culture, size, and multifariousness would be as challenging, if not as fanciful, an endeavour. We most often see China from a distance and through a scrim of largely negative headlines, painted in broad, sombre geopolitical strokes: a vast, befogged land of authoritarian rule, crazed urbanisation, disregard for the treasures of its past, and rampant environmental destruction. As Austin Zhu, Beijing director of luxury travel bureau Abercrombie & Kent, told 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 national elixir in their hands), “China has bad PR.” I had been here before, on business. My mission this time: to see the country as a traveller would, for the pleasure 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 as China has not only an immeasurably rich past but something Italy does not: 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.” He was talking about art—but not only. My game plan: three days each in Beijing and Shanghai, which is still the essential travel duo, 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 the park-like city’s dreamy, classical-painting-and-poetry-enshrined West Lake. I wouldn’t be doing much sleeping, but when I did I wanted to tap into the best ministrations: the impeccable service, the glorious food, and of course, the insider tips for my endless exploration in this humbling land.
The Forbidden City, where between 1420 and 1911 the emperors of China’s last two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing, lived and ruled
The distinctive Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai’s Pudong