Before visiting China, my expectations were blurry. I imaged thousand-year-old temples and shiny skyscrapers, scorpions and street food, a Great Wall. Determined to wrap my mind about the immense, astounding country I was about to experience, I sought the advice of everyone I knew. To my dismay, it seemed that everyone had a different answer and thus, a different opinion of China. Some regaled me with tales of the country’s modernity, praising the people’s forward-thinking attitude, while others labeled China as one of the most traditionally minded nations in the world. Some mentioned how clean the country appeared, its polished streets immaculate, yet others warned that it was horribly polluted, the smog hovering over the entire country like a (literal and figurative) dark cloud. The more advice I received, the more I was left scratching my head, frustrated by conflicting information.
I touched down in Hong Kong and, after a sky-high breakfast of dumplings and barbecue pork bun, observed the other-worldly cityscape in front of me. My jet-lagged eyes played tricks on me as the glimmering towers blended with the rugged mountains behind them. Later, as I strolled through the Nan Lian garden—an architectural marvel surrounded by an endless string of high-rises—I started to realize that China is full of these contradictions: a clash of modern and traditional, a contrast of old and new.
A former fishing village-turned-international metropolis, Hong Kong is pulsing with modernity. From its ever-rising skyline to its buzzing dining and nightlife scene, the city serves as an accessible, familiar introduction to China (most people speak English and the culture is heavily influenced by its former British rule). But below the shiny surface, Hong Kong is extremely grounded in Buddhism and spirituality, its people fiercely proud of their city’s unique heritage. In the Chi Lin Nunnery, I was strictly advised against cell phone usage. I fumbled with mine, afraid of appearing rude and insensitive as I filed past the regal statues of Buddha painted in gold. There in front of me was a monk dressed in traditional garb, distracted from my wide-eyed gaze, as he had his iPhone outstretched in front of himself, taking a selfie.
Beijing, on the other hand, has a different identity. The city where China’s history was written—all grey, chaotic and sprawling—is an ever-changing one. The term ‘culture shock’ is never so fitting as in Beijing, and the exciting disorientation of the capital sets in immediately. For Westerners, everything feels foreign and unfamiliar, from the endless Soviet-style buildings to the uniformed soldiers marching in formation through the streets. But despite the onslaught of traffic and smoggy skies, Beijing has a deeply significant history that is etched into every part of the city: in the words of my guide, ‘Shanghai is a painting. Beijing is a book.’
I began to understand the true magnitude of the city during a visit to Tiananmen Square (in which nearly one million citizens assembled for the protests of 1989), where the expansive surroundings are watched by government-controlled cameras. Here, in a city of innovation and advancement, the presence of history has a dizzying effect. Beijing is a place where monstrous skyscrapers rise from the ground, causing you to strain your eyes beside the last hutong alleys, the remaining relics the country’s ancient dynasties. These beautiful, intense contrasts, I discovered, are the real magic of China.
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This intersection of past and future was perhaps no more obvious than in Chengdu, the most traditional of the three cities I visited. Located in the southwestern province of Sichuan, Chengdu is known for its spicy cuisine (the Sichuan pepper has a numbing effect and should be sampled with caution) and Giant Panda Research Base. Here, locals have a slower, more leisurely pace than elsewhere in the country; visitors will enjoy afternoons spent in teahouses, touring temples and savoring local specialties found at the colorful outdoor markets.
Nonetheless, Chengdu’s tourism is booming (thanks to its furry celebrities) and the city has transformed in recent years into a foodie and design-lover’s paradise boasting fine dining, shopping and stunning modern architecture. The Temple House, the latest HOUSE property to open in China (after the Opposite House Beijing and Upper House Hong Kong) is a glorious masterpiece of urban design built into the restored 17-century Daci Temple. The property combines shimmering steel facades with lush bamboo sculptures and contemporary art installations to create a glorious indoor/outdoor complex that is leading the charge in the city’s progressive new identity. thetemplehousehotel.com
Still, it’s difficult to ignore Chengdu’s deep roots in custom and community. One afternoon, I walked through the city’s central park and came across the ‘Marriage Market,’ where local parents of unmarried adult children exchange paper resumes in hopes of finding a match for their child. Later that day I browsed in an ultra-modern shopping complex and attended a Sichuan feast complete with pork-blood soup.
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One of the many reasons I love travel is that it allows me to reevaluate our place in this world—as individuals, as Americans and as humans. Being in China made me feel wonderfully insignificant and thus humbled as I learned of the country’s astounding history, my feet firmly planted in the same place where so much of it occurred. While my understanding of China is in no way complete, I realize it never will be (and when people ask me to define it, I’ll have trouble as well). China forms contradictions in exciting and unfamiliar ways: its sights, smells and sounds are vibrant; its moments are impactful; its past and future are inextricably linked.
I remembered the metaphor my guide introduced about Beijing as a book, and soon I began to see all of China as one. Indeed, its cover can be misleading as the country’s chaotic, smoggy sprawl can be unappealing to some. In contrast with other destinations, China does not charm visitors immediately; like a book, the magic exists in a particular way that requires travelers to scratch the surface and look beyond the façade. But a journey here comes with rewards beyond belief. In this fascinating, incredible story, it takes a bit of courage and stamina to get to the good part.
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Stay in Style: The world-renowned HOUSE Properties in Hong Kong, Beijing and Chengdu provide guests with true havens in each city. From the out-of-this-world views at the Upper House to the stunning design elements of the Temple House, these properties have perfected the art of service and offer the utmost luxury in their respective locations.
Travel in style: Most major airlines have direct flights to Hong Kong (16 hours from NYC) and connect on short, 2–3 hour domestic flights to other Chinese cities. Cathay Airways, an Indagare preferred airline, offers a top-notch business class experience from check-in to landing. Their business and first class lounges in Hong Kong make layovers a luxury: the first class lounge comes equipped with a miniature spa and day rooms for catnaps; the business class lounge boasts a noodle bar and teahouse.