Sitting by the lake’s edge under an ornate pavilion at Beijing’s resplendent Summer Palace my wife Simone and I gazed admiringly at the landscaped gardens and imperial pagodas as the winter sun slowly disappeared into a distant haze. I poured Simone a glass of Tignanello and raised a toast to our travels. Quietude can be a luxury when travelling to popular tourist destinations and we were grateful that the thoughtful GM of the Aman Summer Palace had arranged for us to enjoy a private sundowner at this serene spot where only an hour earlier thousands of visitors had thronged, selfie sticks in tow.
We had flown into Beijing that afternoon after spending three nights at the iconic Mandarin Oriental in heaving Hong Kong. Regarded as one of the finest luxury hotels in Asia, this is where we celebrated Simone’s birthday and the memory of the delectable Cantonese dinner at the Michelin-starred Man Wah restaurant is still as fresh as the Honey Glazed Oysters we ate that evening.
They say it’s impossible to have a bad meal in Hong Kong and I heartily concur. We lunched at legendary institutions such as Yung Kee where we relished the succulent roast goose and dined at the super trendy Duddel’s where the famed crispy pigeon admirably lived up to its reputation. Street food in Hong Kong is equally scrumptious and varied and if your tastes don’t quite run to Pig Intestines or Stinky Tofu you can always snack on Egg Waffles and Pineapple Buns.
I’m a sucker for old-fashioned barbershops and while Simone enjoyed a rejuvenating massage at the Mandarin Spa, I decided to get a traditional razor shave at the celebrated gentlemen’s salon, the interiors of which are inspired by the Art Deco chic of 1930s Shanghai. We had decided this was going to be a languid, luxurious holiday and our stay at the sumptuous Mandarin Oriental set the standard for the 12-day sojourn through China that lay ahead.
Most travellers to Beijing have on their bucket list a visit to the holy trinity of The Great Wall, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace. It was fortuitous that we were staying at the Summer Palace where the Aman has created a stunning, seamlessly integrated hotel property in the quarters where visiting Chinese nobility would once reside while seeking an audience with Empress Dowager, Cixi. The formidable Cixi famously outlasted three Emperors and was the de facto power behind the Qing dynasty throne for 47 years, from 1861 to 1908. A private gate grants Aman guests after-hours access to the Summer Palace’s vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces and this is how we found ourselves within the palace environs drinking wine in solitary splendor.
Anyone who has seen Bertolucci’s magnum opus The Last Emperor will be familiar with the stately Forbidden City where we spent six hours exploring and marveling the majesty of this sprawling complex. This was the seat of the Imperial Chinese Dragon Throne, lasting from 1420 to 1912, and is so named as it was forbidden for anyone to enter or leave the palace without the emperor's permission.
That evening, though weary from our exertions and tempted to order room service in our gorgeous Ming dynasty-style suite, we decided to dine at the Chinese restaurant at the Aman, as it is renowned for its Peking Duck served three ways. This was a deliciously prudent decision as the native Cherry Duck used to prepare this specialty is plumper and juicier than most poultry.
The Great Wall is breathtaking. Not just for its sheer scale but because it exemplifies extraordinary human endeavor and a martial history spanning centuries. Hopping onto a ski lift we ascended a craggy hill at Badaling, located an hour’s drive outside Beijing, to arrive atop the North Tower. We smilingly posed for pictures on the magnificent ramparts but I then retreated to a quiet corner to contemplate the huge human cost that must have gone into erecting one of the greatest edifices known to man. The phrase ‘its all downhill from here’ acquired new meaning as we descended in a toboggan, careening wildly down the hillside on a serpentine track. There was an icy wind blowing that November afternoon but I felt a warm glow within.
Away from the bustle of Beijing is the provincial town of Lijiang where the Amandayan offers sanctuary to visitors taken by the charms of this Unesco World Heritage Site. The entire old town, leveled after an earthquake in 1996 but lovingly rebuilt in traditional style, lives up to the epithet of being the Venice of China, dotted as it is with picturesque bridges and canals. The settlement stands in the shadow of the jagged Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, revered by the ethnic Naxi tribals and Tibetian populace that reside in the area. The culinary influences of these indigenous people is evident in the simmering black clay Hot Pots, Yak meat and Yunnan mushroom dishes that are served at charming little cafes and, of course, at the Amandayan where one can dine al fresco while enjoying stunning views of the sacred Snow Mountain.
On a walkabout through the quaint township of Dayan, Simone and I jammed with a group of wizened musicians who gamely taught us how to play their folk instruments. Contrite for the cacophony we had created we tipped them generously and ducked into a Silk Embroidery School where Simone purchased several exquisite artworks as souvenirs for friends back home. So entranced were we by the beauty and serenity of the Black Dragon Pool gardens in Lijiang that we lost track of time and almost missed our flight to Hangzhou that afternoon.
A few hours later we arrived at Amanfayun, located in a lush bamboo and tea plantation near the panoramic West Lake. Embracing the layout and spirit of a Chinese village, Amanfayun is a wondrous enclave of winding stone footpaths and shaded courtyards through which the rustic but superbly well-appointed villas are accessed. There are several important Buddhist temples within walking distance from this idyllic property and after an edifying morning spent chanting with monks at the Faxi Temple, we visited the Lingyin and Tianzu shrines where pilgrims from across China converge to offer prayers.
As rain fell gently on clay-tiled roofs we gathered in a wood-paneled pavilion for a tea tasting conducted by a soft-spoken Master who introduced us to the delights of Pu’er Tea. Once drunk only by royalty, this aged and fermented dark tea provides a host of health benefits including lowering of cholesterol and fat burning. Quaffing several cups of this delicious elixir I felt invigorated and ready for my evening massage at the expansive Spa where I was repeatedly kneaded with bamboo rollers until I emerged an hour later feeling very much like flatbread. I realised then that I am more a fan of gentle Balinese massage than such vigorous Chinese ministrations.
Perhaps no other place exemplifies the Aman axiom of harmony with the environment more perfectly than the recently opened Amanyangyun in Shanghai. This awe-inspiring property is the culmination of an ambitious feat of architectural and ecological conservation where 50 Ming and Qing dynasty villas and 10,000 trees were successfully relocated 700 kms away to a camphor forest outside Shanghai to save them from being submerged in the historical city of Fuzhou.
Simone and I were delighted to be one of the first guests to stay at the uber-luxurious Amanyangyun and were spoilt silly by the Chinese, Italian and Japanese master chefs who plied us with astonishing meals at their signature restaurants made from prime ingredients freshly sourced from across the world. Upon learning that I was a cigar aficionado, the charismatic GM graciously invited me to inaugurate their opulent Cigar Lounge and I was chuffed at this singular honour as I puffed on a Havana while nursing a 25-year-old Hibiki Malt.
Spread across nine elegant tea-rooms, the in-house Nan Shufang complex is a tranquil venue to immerse oneself in varied facets of Chinese art and culture. We were inspired to attend workshops on incense and tea appreciation and also tried our hand at ancient calligraphy, with regrettably shaky results.
Our cavernous, centuries-old villa, immaculately reconstructed brick by brick, was not only kitted with every conceivable mod-con but also came with a personal butler. Awaiting me one evening was a piping pot of ginger, lemon and honey infused tea that he had caringly brewed after observing me sniffle earlier that day. When we stepped out to do some local shopping, our butler diligently accompanied us not only to help translate but also bargain on our behalf. It is thoughtful gestures such as these that have turned us into Aman junkies, when we realized that we aren’t merely staying in the lap of luxury at these properties but are being cared for to the point of being pampered.
Shanghai is legend as a city on steroids and the pulsating Pudong commercial district epitomises the spirit of modern China. Standing tall among a slew of skyscrapers is the imposing Mandarin Oriental where we transferred for two nights to experience the allures of psychedelic Shanghai.
After checking into our top floor suite, which commands astonishing views of the Huangpu river and landmark Bund, we went down for cocktails at the exclusive club lounge and were pleasantly surprised to run into a flock of famous Victoria’s Secret models, who had jetted into China to launch the lingerie brand at a glitzy fashion show.
Trendy nightclubs and international restaurants pepper the Shanghai cityscape and while we did our share of hip bar hopping it was the regional Jiang Nan cuisine, characterized by light, delicate flavours and aromatic scents, that enthralled Simone and me. On our last night in Shanghai we feasted at the Michelin-starred Yong Yi Ting restaurant on the local delicacy, Hairy Crab, which pairs perfectly with yellow rice wine, a libation of which we had become rather fond.
Venerated for its impeccable hospitality, the Mandarin Oriental had arranged a limousine transfer to Shanghai airport and fast-track service through a VIP terminal to the aircraft that would ferry us home. Fastening our seatbelts, Simone and I smiled at one another, grateful to have struck perfect equilibrium between the traditional and the modern in our travels through Hong Kong and China, where Yin and Yang famously coexist in perfect congruence.