There is more to China, the country 1.3 billion people call home, than meets the eye. Michelle Ng visited three seemingly similar Chinese cities and discovered that each has its own unique flavour.
Beijing: Historical Sights and Sites
“You are very lucky, today is the best weather we’ve had all week!” declared my chatty local driver as we started our 20-minute car ride to Oakwood Residence Beijing from Beijing airport.
As I watched the clear blue skies turn orange as the sun went down, it’s hard to believe I narrowly missed a weeklong of typhoon rains and massive floods in the capital. It was too late for any sightseeing so after a cosy welcome dinner of seared tuna and chocolate fondant at Oakwood’s in-house restaurant Mediterraneo followed by a traditional Chinese massage at Auream Medical and Cosmetology Clinic, I climbed into bed.
All year round, tourists – 200 million of them just in 2011 alone – swarm to Beijing like bees to nectar, and for good reason. While Beijing is, without a doubt, an attractive metropolis for businesses, it is more remarkable how the city manages to preserve its rich history and culture even through rapid modernisation.
For starters, the city is quite literally built around the Forbidden City, the impressive 500-year-old ancient palace. No tourist should leave the city without seeing it, so I found myself at Tiananmen Square jostling with locals and tourists for a good picture with the majestic entrance of the Forbidden City in the background.
I strongly recommend watching the nine-time Academy Award-winning film The Last Emperor (which happens to be the only film ever permitted to be shot on location here) before visiting the palace, especially if you don’t wish to hire an audio guide (CNY40, about S$7.80, with a CNY100 deposit) or one of the English-speaking tour guides (about CNY250) waiting at the ticket counter.
My pre-booked tour guide from Grey Line was like the history teacher I never had; he cheerfully retold stories of the Ming and Qing dynasties during our two-hour walk through multiple gates, the great throne room and the beautiful Imperial Garden, conjuring images of the grandeur of the City during its peak.
Oakwood Beijing’s suggested itinerary includes a trip to Sanlitun Village. This hip shopping, dining and entertainment cluster is home to China’s first Apple store and carries plenty of international and local brands. You can buy practically any kind of touristy souvenir cheaply if you bargain hard enough in the nearby Yashow Clothing Market, but I didn’t fancy anything on offer and left empty-handed. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it a visit to the Great Wall of China – that will have to wait for next time.
Dinner was a scrumptious affair at Hua’s Restaurant on Beijing’s famous food street, Gui Jie, also known as Ghost Street. Situated in a revamped Chinese courtyard house (the four bedrooms are now private dining rooms), the busy restaurant serves what a Beijinger friend called “the best Peking roast duck in the whole of Beijing”. First bite and I was convinced.
There was no lack of entertainment either. One chef sliced noodles off a lump of dough on his head while riding a unicycle, and another did a Sichuan opera face-changing performance that brought the house down. In high spirits, we retreated to Houhai Bar Street, settled ourselves in one of the many live bars and clinked our glasses late into the night.
Hangzhou: Garden City
Within two hours of setting foot in Hangzhou, I’m convinced that this quaint and charming water town is an ideal place for retirement. In fact, its many natural attractions have earned it a reputation as a Garden City.
After a short ride from Oakwood Residence Hangzhou, I arrived at Xi Hu, also known as the West Lake. The grey and misty sky added a touch of mystery to the beauty of the freshwater lake and its surrounding greenery and I could vaguely make out the outline of Leifeng Pagoda on the opposite shore. Healthy living is a huge part of life here; there were many people practising tai chi under the natural coolness of the tree canopies.
Small, traditional teahouses are plentiful, most of them occupied by retirees playing cards and drinking Hangzhou’s famous export – Dragon Well tea, locally referred to as Longjing tea. I was told that the prime spring harvest can sell for CNY2,500 per kilo or more, so I had to try a cup of this painstakingly handpicked, hand-dried green tea at a tea farmer’s house.
The following day, I crossed my fingers for better weather and visited Xixi Wetland Park. The CNY140 entrance ticket included a 20-minute electric boat ride with a tour guide. Upon docking, a strong stench greeted us: vendors were selling stinky or fermented tofu, a popular snack. I had a lovely lunch planned so I decided to skip it, though I saw many Western tourists trying it, seemingly half-curious and half-disgusted.
From the number of tourists going in and out, you would assume Hu Qing Yu Tang on Ancient Street to be a tourist attraction, but it is in fact a traditional Chinese medicine hall-cum-museum. From embalmed tiger to antelope horn and 100-year-old ginseng, it displays TCM in every imaginable form to the general public.
Scrumptious was the order of the night at my hotel’s Oakleaf restaurant that evening, where wines were paired with a five-course meal that included delicious steak, risotto and truffle chocolate balls.
Shanghai: Cosmopolitan Chic
I’d been warned that domestic flights rarely depart or land on time, so choosing the high-speed train (approximately CNY70, depending on the timing) from Hangzhou to Shanghai was a no-brainer. It barely felt like an hour and half had past when I reached Shanghai’s railway station.
To say Shanghai is crowded is an understatement. Elbow-to-elbow, I moved with a throng of people to the station’s exit, where I was greeted with modern high-rise buildings as far as the eye could see.
After a home-style lunch in an Oakwood Residence Shanghai apartment and a much-needed rest, I made a beeline to The Bund, the famous waterfront landmark so frequently featured on Shanghai postcards. The west side of The Bund, home to 26 buildings of different architectural styles ranging from Baroque to Romanesque to Renaissance, is every photographer’s dream; on good days, you get an picturesque view of the city across the HuangpuRiver.
Apart from its four seasons, Shanghai felt very much like my home, Singapore. I must have fitted in quite well, as an elderly lady babbled to me in Shanghainese for a minute before realising I did not understand her one bit!
To the delight of the shopaholic streak in me, there is no lack of quirky boutiques in this fashionable city. Conveniently, Oakwood Shanghai has a shopping and sightseeing itinerary that narrowed down a couple of interesting must-visit places for its time-starved guests. I particularly fancied Tianzifang, a small enclave in the French Concession with an old Shanghainese flair. It used to be a residential area, but has recently been transformed into narrow alleys of independent cafés and novelty shops. Another similar upscale shopping area is Xintiandi, where you will be spoilt for choice for dinner.
Next stop is the Yuyuan Garden, a classic Chinese garden built by a wealthy family in the 1550s; you’ll need no more than 30 minutes to take it all in. Right in the middle of Yu Bazaar, the area you pass through before entering the garden, is a very traditional-looking eatery called Nanxiang Mantou Dian. Apparently, locals claim that it’s Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao shop; the long, snaking queue attests to that. My dinner was full-on Shanghainese fare at 1221 Restaurant, a dining hideout (literally, the entrance is in an alley) known only to locals and experienced expats.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at Oakleaf, I set out for the airport and bid au revoir to China.
Home Away from Home
There are six Oakwood properties within China – Residence Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Chengdu and a new luxury Premier Guangzhou along with the existing Residence Guangzhou. Each property is fitted with in-house restaurants, a fitness centre, a business centre and even a children’s playroom. Daily complimentary international buffet breakfast, regular housekeeping, grocery delivery, babysitting, laundry and dry cleaning are also available for guests.
From studio-sized for singles to four-bedroom for big families, all apartments are fully furnished with a living room, dining area and a full kitchen complete with a fridge, stove and oven.
Psst! We hear that many expats who initially booked a short-term stay with Oakwood liked the convenience and facilities so much that they ended up staying for the duration of their posting!
Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) offers four daily flights to Beijing and five daily flights to Shanghai. They do not fly to Hangzhou, but you can always catch the high-speed train (around CNY70,chinatrainguide.com) to and from Shanghai. Cheaper flight options are offered by China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Jetstar and AirAsia. All nationalities except citizens of Singapore, Brunei and Japan are required to apply online in advance for a visa (visaforchina.org).
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