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Captivated by China

If you want to know why Shanghai is such an intoxicating city, stand at the People’s Heroes monument, that cement sculpture of abstracted gun barrels pointing skyward. It can all be seen from here: the past, the future, the promise, the alchemy happening before your eyes. Weaving through the center of it all is the churning Huangpu River, packed with ships laden with construction materials. Along the western bank lies the historic heart of the city, the Bund, a beautiful boulevard lined with plane trees and impeccably restored buildings in a cocktail of architectural styles: Art Deco, Neo Classical, Beaux-Arts, Gothic Revival. They are grand, charming, elegant–and nothing whatsoever like the über-modern skyline facing them from Pudong, the financial district just across the river. For that is where delta mud flats that were nothing but rice paddies twenty years ago have been transformed (seemingly overnight) into some of the most recognizable and outlandish feats of architecture in the world, including the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center, one of the tallest buildings on the planet. By the way, there’s no bedrock, so all those thousand-foot skyscrapers are built on floating lattices of pine logs, just like Venice. Everything about this city defies one’s imagination–which, in some ways is perfectly consistent with its roots. As our architectural guide put it: “You know what I love about Shanghai? In the 1920s and '30s, you take this odd cultural mix of refugees, gangsters, prostitutes, Chinese warlords, Japanese spies, English opium traders, French missionaries…and somehow they all come together to create this lovely city.”

My recent trip included time in Beijing, Hangzhou and Hong Kong. After the thrill of the cities, it was lovely to spend time in the more peaceful and beautiful Hangzhou, an hour away by train. We biked along the Su Causeway, which cut through West Lake. The water blinked silver in the morning light, while willow branches on the shoreline waved in the breeze. Old men rowed traditional wooden boats past clustered lotus leaves, with cypress trees and pagodas silhouetted against the hazy mountains in the distance. At the end, I realized that my trip did not feel complete until all our experiences were in balance. We saw the Imperial side of China, through Beijing and the Forbidden City, its massive scale purposefully designed to intimidate. We saw the urban, glamorous China, through Hong Kong and Shanghai, sci-fi in its modernity. And we experienced the gentle, beautiful, pastoral and traditional China through Hangzhou. Yin and yang. City and country. Past and future. Seen together, they were harmonious.

Favorite Meal: The seven-course chef’s tasting menu at Hong Kong's Lung King Heen, the world’s first Chinese restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars. The dishes were fresh, light, surprising and wholly unforgettable.

Favorite Books: Shanghai ‘37 for an engaging portrait of the city in its golden age; Wild Swans, an epic novel about the Cultural Revolution; Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel about women’s friendships in 19th century China; and China Wakes, about the country’s transformation into a superpower.

Indagare Tip: Very few people speak English, even in the hotels, and of those who do, their English may be limited to a handful of words. It is crucial to have a guide who can act as a translator. Indagare is happy to arrange one, just contact our Bookings Team.

Published onOctober 25, 2013

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