Adventure on the Side: The Timeless Soul of China
Art, architecture, tea, music, temples and food are doorways to the heart of Chinese culture. Why not tack extra days onto your business trip to China for discovery? There's no reason why you can't mix business with pleasure. Today’s modern China makes it easy to get around. Business brings you to prestigious, world-class hotels in Shanghai, Kunshan, Nanjing and Beijing, and the cultural odyssey makes you glad you stayed.
Shanghai: Nostalgic Glamour
Shanghai is China’s largest and most romantic city, a central Asian Pacific crossroads for trade and leading global finance capital. Fairmont Peace Hotel, a captivating Shanghai landmark on the Bund waterfront, overlooks Huangpu River. Built in 1929, this Art Deco jewel has played host to Shanghai’s elite, visiting royalty, and lavish cabaret parties enlivened by the likes of Charlie Chaplin.
You and your clients can step back in time with a visit to the Jazz Bar for authentic 1920s-era cocktails and Shanghai numbers from the celebrated Old Jazz Band. The average age of the troupe’s seasoned musicians is 80. Request the playlist to order your favorite Cole Porter tune; expect to pay 100 yuan per song to serenade your guests.
Gift-giving is standard business practice in China, and should be reciprocated. Luxe boutiques from Hermes to Dunhill are nearby. Major cities have ATMs that usually accept your credit/debit cards, as do the largest chain stores. China is still the king of plastic, after all! But if you bring cash, select crisp, new banknotes, as most currency exchanges won’t accept worn bills or those with tiny tears.
When you're ready for a break and leisure shopping, stroll to the elegant Song Fang Maison de Thé salon in the old French Concession. Taste one of 70 finely sourced teas, surrounded by charming vintage birdcages and antiques. Tea is not only central to experiencing China’s identity, but the shop’s pretty blue canisters also make nice gifts. For something a bit more modern, the Power Station of Art, a gigantic, renovated former power plant, is dedicated to contemporary art in China and stages the world-renowned Shanghai Biennale. Its gift shop has hip, cutting-edge finds including T-shirts from artist Cai Guo-Qiang and a metal Shanghai model.
Kunshan: Hairy Crabs and Opera
Kunshan is a charming city found on the outskirts of Shanghai. It’s easy to get to by train, and is famous for two things in particular: Kunqu opera and hairy crabs. The latter thrive in the cool waters of picturesque Yangcheng Lake, which provides a tranquil backdrop to the five-star Fairmont Yangcheng Lake nestled on its shores. The hotel’s stylish Yi Feng Court restaurant is an ideal spot to wine and dine clients, and the hairy crabs are a great conversation starter as the region's most sought-after specialty. Other notable local signature dishes include stir-fried lily, river eel and Kunshan Ao Zao noodles.
Dining with Chinese colleagues involves nuanced etiquette. Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl; use the holder provided or lay them flat across the plate. If you are a guest, always let the host begin the toasts, but then be sure to toast everyone at the table individually, from senior to junior, before the end of the evening. Younger associates may serve their superiors from food platters as a sign of respect. Your host may also do this for you to express hospitality, but you're not expected to return the favor.
The rules of Chinese politeness remain the gold standard. Keep it formal, and don’t make jokes, as the Chinese are serious about business. Lateness is seen as very rude. Offer a business card with two hands and accept one with both, taking a few seconds to look at it carefully and, if possible, placing it in a cardholder. Shake hands firmly, but avoid other physical contact such as a friendly slap on the back.
When the work is done, take time to discover this city. An intimate look into local Chinese culture and the lives of everyday people can be found in Kunshan’s verdant Tinglin Park, home to the Huiju monastery dating back to the Liao dynasty, and a lake filled with rare, double blossom lotus flowers. Early in the morning you're welcome to join the groups practicing tai chi. Learn about Kunqu opera, the oldest form of opera in the world, at a small museum, or sit beneath the shady trees and watch impromptu pavilion performances for yourself.
Nanjing: Meeting Buddha and Confucius
Fairmont Nanjing sits snugly in the top half of the Jin Ao Tower, a modern architectural wonder resembling a Chinese lantern. Despite recent growth, Nanjing proudly displays its history as one of China’s four ancient capitals. Like Shanghai, there’s glittering nightlife, high-end shopping and exquisite food. Don’t miss the Nanjing specialty, salted duck.
Nanjing is the ideal place to experience Confucianism and Buddhism, the mind and soul of China. A more intimate knowledge of these revered philosophers may endear you to your Chinese colleagues or clients; understanding their culture is a sign of respect. To visit local temples and museums, the iPhone app Pleco (iTunes) is particularly handy. With its optical character recognition (OCR) you can point your phone’s camera at Chinese letters or tap a still image for translation.
Jiming Temple, situated on a hill overlooking Xuanwu Lake, dates back to 557. It’s especially lovely during cherry blossom season, when the road in front is filled with the fragrant trees. Admission includes incense to burn at the altar; mingle with local worshipers and experience Chinese Buddhism firsthand. No one minds if you’re not Buddhist.
Nearby, the lively riverside Confucius Temple (Fuzi Miao), built during the Song dynasty in 1034, is a stunning place to explore the philosophy that still deeply influences China’s core values and the essence of the historical architectural complex in this area. You might choose to browse the charming shops and inexpensive cafes in the winding walkways of the temple, visit Jiang Nan Examination Institute, the largest imperial examination institute of ancient China, or catch a scenic boat ride on Qin Huai River. If you visit before or during the lunar New Year, the entire Confucius Temple area is decorated with handcrafted Chinese lanterns.
Beijing: Emperors, Hutongs and Fried Scorpions
While many still favor the rickshaw, China’s high-speed bullet trains have revolutionized traveling the country’s vast distances. At speeds of 150-180 mph, you soar from Shanghai or Nanjing to Beijing in five hours, on time, and within the budget. Roomy seats and wide windows frame the terraced fields and rural villages that pass seamlessly from one to the next. A plus for non-stop business: first- and business-class sections feature power outlets and Wi-Fi.
Even if you’ve visited Beijing many times, there’s always something new to discover in this high-energy Chinese capital. Add an extra day or two to your trip for pampered relaxation and a bit of exploration. Traffic and crowds can be exasperating, but a rose-geranium wrap, eucalyptus steam bath or Chinese meridian massage at Fairmont Beijing hotel restores your qi enough to explore all 980 buildings of the Forbidden City.
Outside the palace, Beijing’s historical hutong neighborhoods are made up of narrow alleys and courtyard houses, some as old as the 12th century. The narrowest is Qianshi, located outside the Qianmen Gate. At its tightest point it’s only 16 inches wide, so you have to turn sideways to pass another person!
For a lively Beijing culinary adventure head over to Dong Hua Men night market. This favorite of visitors and locals alike displays a multitude of regional Chinese snacks and eye-popping exotic foods: fried scorpions on sticks, sea horses, or giant spiders. On Niu Jie, "Muslim snack street," you’ll find the city’s oldest mosque and groups from more than 20 of China’s minorities.
If you're looking for a classic Peking duck banquet, visit the century-old Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant on Qianmen Street. Just be sure to have the concierge make a reservation so you can bypass the long wait. President George W. Bush and Fidel Castro have both eaten here, though probably not at the same time.
Martha Burr has a deep affection for China, having visited for both business and leisure travel multiple times. She is a professional travel writer, with clients ranging from upscale hotel brands to Gayot.com.
Huxinting Tea House in Shanghai by Achim Prill
China Nanjing Confucius Temple close dark by zetter