China exists on a scale all of its own. The incredible size of the country along with everything there is to see and do conspire to make it impossible to even scratch the surface on just a single trip. No, I imagine a lifetime – or even multiple lifetimes – would be necessary to properly appreciate everything that China has to offer, but I didn’t have multiple lifetimes to devote on my first visit. No, I had a very limited amount of time but I was determined to make the most of it. I spent a lot of time researching and thinking about how best to prioritize my first experience in China and while I know it’s very basic and even elementary, it’s also how I think many first-time visitors experience the country. With all of that in mind, here are just some of my favorite experiences I enjoyed during that oh so important first journey.
One of China’s most enduring symbols, spending some time exploring the Great Wall was near the top of my must-do list. Almost immediately as I started researching though I realized that visiting the Great Wall isn’t as straight forward as it would seem. The Great Wall is of course enormous, which means there are many different points at which visitors can access this world wonder. Luckily several of the most popular ones are an easy drive from Beijing, making this an exceedingly popular day trip option. But which one to choose? Asking several friends and colleagues I eventually settled on the Mutianyu section due to its level of preservation and the fact that it’s not as popular with tourists as other sections. I didn’t want to visit along with 10,000 of my new closest friends and so picking a not-so-touristy section was important to me. Luckily, I made the right decision and the morning spent clambering over this architectural masterpiece is something I know I’ll always remember.
Who doesn’t love pandas? Well, I’m sure there are some horrible people out there but I, like millions of others, have always loved pandas. In fact, I love them so much that I made it my mission while in China to visit the world capital of all things panda, Chengdu. There I visited the Dujiangyan research center; just one of many in the region devoted to protecting and preserving this oddly fragile species. I didn’t just get to watch the pandas though, this is also where I had the very unique opportunity to hug one of these teddy bears come to life. For a donation to the center, visitors can either spend an entire day volunteering at the center, or just spend a few moments hugging a panda. I was short on time, so I opted for the panda hug but even this brief encounter was an extraordinary moment. A small group of us excitedly waited for the panda to be brought out, a younger one who immediately hopped up on a nearby bench, clearly used to the activity. The hug itself only lasted about 30-seconds, but it was a special moment and for all of us there truly was the culmination of a lifetime of waiting.
Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong
Naturally when we travel the cultural and active experiences are the most important, but as a luxury traveler the hotels where I decide to stay are also very important. Not all hotels are made the same and while Hong Kong certainly has no shortage of amazing luxury properties, my time spent at the Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong was the best I’ve experienced in the city. The highest hotel in the world, the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong calls the 102nd to 118th floors of the massive International Commerce Centre home, as enviable position in Kowloon as there is. The location is perfect and so are the views. Sitting in my room looking out across Victoria Harbour I thought for about the 1000th time just how striking and magnificent the city is. There is no other city in the world like Hong Kong and the Ritz-Carlton is the perfect place to enjoy everything that makes it such a joy to visit.
One challenge I had in Beijing was that there was too much to see and do and not enough time to do it. So I had to pick and choose but looking back at it, the decision to visit the large Summer Palace complex was very smart. Chinese rulers lived in this tranquil retreat for centuries and today you can easily sense the former power and glory that was centered here. On a warm almost-summer weekend afternoon, its appeal wasn’t only obvious to me, but the thousands of Beijing locals all there to enjoy some time in the gardens and paddling on the lake. It was a fun afternoon with some history thrown in, but mostly the appeal of the Summer Palace is the pastoral beauty. In a city as large as Beijing, it’s a nice way to slow down and relax.
Eating in Chengdu
Chengdu is known for its spice, but it’s also famous for a very particular way of cooking – the hot pot. I like to think of the Chinese hot pot as a type of fondue. There are specific hot pot restaurants, and each table in them is equipped with inlaid pots and cookers, just like at fondue restaurants I’ve been to here in the States. I was led through this process by new friends I made, eager to show me the proper way to enjoy this iconic dinner. The hot pot process though is fairly simple. Diners select the meats and vegetables they want to cook in the pots along with the type of stock. In Chengdu, this means a broth that is literally teeming with those famous red Sichuan peppers. It was an easy process to learn, dropping the meat into the simmering broth, waiting for it to cook, removing it and lightly dipping it into oil to remove some of the spicy heat before eating it. It was a fun experience but a spicy one, more than once tears welled up in my eyes but I loved the dinner. Hot pot is about the great food, but it’s also about the camaraderie, the conversation and being together with friends. Being in that restaurant, clearly a local and not a tourist favorite, I felt like I had been let into a secret, another piece of the puzzle in understanding the city.
Home to 24 emperors over the course of 500-years, the Forbidden City is the heart of Beijing’s impressive imperial history. It’s also an immense space, with legend holding that it is home to 9,999½ rooms. These are scenes I’ve been admiring in books for decades, and to suddenly find myself there, wandering around the buildings and plazas in person and not through film or photos was a uniquely wonderful sensation. It was a sudden awareness that I was there, I was finally in China, the long mythologized country of my travel dreams.
I know that to some this list may seem a little basic and even obvious, but as travelers we all have to start somewhere. Since it was my first time in China I wanted to be a typical tourist, visiting all of those famous sites I’d spent a lifetime learning about. I accomplished my mission and even more importantly, have set myself up for an even more in depth exploration on future trips.