China’s Big Cities and Small Villages
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Staying in one of the 47 stone courtyard suites at the Amanfayun Resort in Hangzhou is like stepping into a beautiful, idealized, traditional Chinese village—the height of elegance and simplicity. The lakeside resort is hidden in a valley, surrounded by rolling hills and within walking distance of Linyin Temple, an ancient Buddhist center. The hotel is just 45 minutes by high-speed train from Shanghai.
Restaurant the locals love
Even the simplest corner cafés in China serve amazing dishes, but one of my favorites is Ding Tai Feng, a Taiwanese restaurant with locations in Beijing and Shanghai (it also has two outlets in California). It specializes in small dumplings, but all the food is meticulously prepared (you can watch the chef in action through a glass wall) and consistently excellent. The most famous dish is tese xiaolongbao, bite-size dumplings cooked in a bamboo steamer; the chicken soup with noodles is another specialty.
Meal worth the splurge
Made in China is a great small Chinese restaurant in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Beijing. Its Beijing duck and beggar’s chicken (stuffed chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and roasted) are the best in all of Beijing. Be sure to book ahead of time.
Prime picnic spot
The Great Wall. We’ll send you with a guide who will carry a picnic lunch from the Kempinski Hotel German Bakery. Spread a blanket on a watchtower away from the crowds and prepare to be amazed by the views.
What to See and Do
The Yangtze River cruise became popular in the 1970s when China lacked even basic accommodations and restaurants. Today, China has developed beautiful lodges in remote mountain reaches, and there are fine restaurants even in small towns. Spending even just three days with hundreds of other Western travelers over forgettable buffets is a complete waste of time when you could be sipping tea with a Bai ethnic family and learning more about their lives and culture, or staying in a luxury lodge in a remote and fascinating region.
The Tibetan-influenced region that includes Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu provinces. Most people don’t know that there is a huge strip of Tibetan culture in these western provinces, along with stunning scenery and rich Tibetan Buddhist history, without the hassle of dealing with occasional Chinese government bans on travel permits to Tibet. You also won’t encounter the kind of crowds here that you’ll see in Lhasa. In these western provinces, you can really get close to the culture, meeting Tibetan families and monks or even finding a place for your own spiritual retreat.
Dunhuang Grotto, in the desert in northwest China, along the route of the ancient Silk Road. It was originally a Buddhist retreat, and its spectacular cave paintings—dating back more than 1,200 years—are perfectly preserved due to the dryness of the desert. This is an amazing site and one of my top recommendations, even for first-time visitors.
Yunnan Province is no longer a hidden gem, now that Lijiang’s Old Town has been named a UNESCO site, but it’s still one of the most diverse and interesting provinces to visit. The Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rivers cut through the province north to south, forming beautiful deep valleys and soaring peaks, and its ethnic cultures and biodiversity are among the most interesting in China.
In Yunnan, Impression Lijiang is a live spectacle of music and dancing highlighting local cultures and performed in an outdoor park set against spectacular alpine scenery. The show features hundreds of performers in colorful costumes and was created by the famed movie director Zhang Yimou, who also directed the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony (getting the picture?). It’s performed daily. Tickets are about $30, which is very inexpensive for a show the likes of which you’ve never seen and are sure to never forget.
An afternoon at the Aman Summer Palace Resort. It’s connected to the Summer Palace and beautifully designed in traditional Chinese courtyard style. Rooms run from $500 to $800 a night, but for the price of an afternoon tea you can stroll the exquisite and tranquil traditional grounds and enjoy the height of Beijing elegance.
Spend half a day in Shanghai visiting the synagogues or the French Concession with a noted scholar. The histories of these places are rich and relatively recent and almost always overlooked. Even when they are part of a tour, they receive only cursory explanations. We can provide you with one of the few scholars who can take you on a tour that will bring the Jewish or French histories of Shanghai to life, and give you a much deeper understanding of the city and how these groups shaped it.
Have a corner of the Forbidden City’s eastern garden all to yourself while sipping a glass of Champagne and nibbling some grapes in a lovely pavilion. You’ll feel like one of the emperor’s esteemed guests and enjoy a respite from the crowds and walking. This section of the Forbidden City is rarely visited by other tourists. Most people don’t even know it’s there.