China: The Banyan Tree Lijiang

Has anyone even heard of Lijiang? I hadn't, but it has nearly 1.3 million people living in this Chinese city in the west.  When we flew from Shanghai to Lijiang, I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  Usually, I have some sort of frame of reference for where I'm going. Not with the Yunnan province.   This was the view as we flew down into the valley of the mountains. Sold already right? How absolutely gorgeous.

I was now 8,000 feet above sea level and feeling the change in elevation, gulping down bottles of water to avoid any type of altitude sickness, because the next few days would bring even higher elevations.

Gerald Hatherly, my trusted and beloved Abercrombie & Kent guide, had planned a special itinerary in Lijiang. Most people here are Naxi, a minority group in China but one that is large and believed to have come from Tibet hundreds of years ago.

Exterior of VillaThe Banyan Tree Lijiang blends effortlessly into the landscape of the rural areas of Lijiang and was my home for two nights.  There so many uniquely Chinese design elements from the walkways and villas to the restaurant and spa.  I live for moments on the road that take your breath away.  Seeing this stunning pagoda on the property with a backdrop of green and snow-capped mountains was one of them.  I was someplace so foreign, so unexpected, so beautiful, and so completely unknown to every single friend and family member I have.  I felt enormous responsiblity to bring back these images and adequately explain what I had seen. This is my favorite photo of the entire trip.

My garden villa had three separate areas, the bathroom, bedroom, and office/mini-bar area. 

The bed will remain one of my favorites I've ever slept in, because it had a personal sheet warmer, where I could dial up the heat during the cold night.

In the morning, I walked outside and saw this view.

I loved the stone walkways throughout the resort.

The spa had that same soothing Chinese design, with red, black and gold elements.


Scenes from Shanghai


On my second day in China (staying in the Fairmont Peace Hotel), we took a quick tour of Shanghai before heading to the airport to fly to Lijiang and begin touring the Yunnan province.  Shanghai was INSTANT LOVE for me. Something about it was so much like the energy I feel in New York.  My number one tip for any city so foreign is to hire a guide (I was on an Abercrombie & Kent itinerary with one of their best guides) but I always make sure to spend some alone time on the streets.  

The Bund curves around Shanghai's river, and has been the cultural heart and best place to live in the city for decades.  I had no idea the architecture on the Bund was so worldly and international, dating back to when ex-pats lived and spent their money in the city.  

The beautiful Bund in ShanghaiThe HSBC Building now houses the Shanghai Pudong Development BankIn 2010, Shanghai commissioned the original artist of the famous Wall Street bull to replicate a bull for the Bund.  As the Financial Times stated, "Call it the sincerest form of rivalry. Shanghai plans to equal New York as a global financial centre by 2020, so it needs its own bull." The artist, Arturo DiModico, said that the Shanghai Bull weighs exactly the same as the New York Bull (though there are minor differences).

We also toured Old Shanghai, a very tourist-y but still architecturally cool area, with tea & chopsticks shops, and a very popular place with an hour-long line, Nanxiang, for soup dumplings.  I recently tried the famous soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai in New York and it was a travel "duh" moment that connected all the dots. "It's called Joe's Shanghai in New York...The Shanghainese inhale soup dumplings...oh soup dumplings come from Shanghai, not Chinatown!"

The Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse has served Queen Elizabeth II and Bill Clinton and holds court in the center of this historic area, reached by a winding bridge with nine turns.

 The Mid-Lake Pavilion TeahouseContrast Between Old & New Shanghai

The Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai: Timeless

The Peace Hotel on the right, with green-topped roof
The lobby can be described in one word: grand. The Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai: timeless.  It's hard to find a flaw, especially because it so graciously melds its history from when Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East with its modern status as a gathering spot in the city.  Checking in was the best welcome to China and was where I met up with my fellow travelers and Abercrombie & Kent guide, Gerald Hatherly. 
The grand lobby & gorgeous artwork
Across the street are the bright lights of Pudong, a view that didn't exist 20 years ago. But the Peace Hotel has stood strong here on the Bund for over 80 years, formerly the Cathay Hotel before becoming the Peace Hotel in 1956.  American and British ex-pats loved the Old Jazz Club, which is now the Jazz Bar in the lobby today. When I arrived at night, completely bleary-eyed (I had taken my blurry, dry contacts out in an angry huff & thrown them on the Shanghai airport floor), I heard strains of jazz music through the lobby and was in another world. 
Pudong across the river
The entire place epitomizes the golden age of this city.  Each room and suite was refurbished in 2007 and mine was great. The only thing to make it better would have been a view of Pudong.
My room
Only the famous suites have views of Pudong (the front of the building is small) and we got to tour these Nine Nations Suites, which reflect the global flair of the Peace Hotel.  I loved the Indian Suite and the Japanese Suite. Other suites include the American, Spanish, German, Chinese and Italian ones.  
The Japanese SuiteThe Indian Suite
The founder of the hotel, Sir Victor Sassoon (unrelated to the hair family, but a very wealthy Indian family), kept a penthouse here, which is now the Presidential Suite and evocative of his time.  But, of course, it's now draped in the latest tech products. Someone even rented it out for the day of the Royal Wedding and invited friends and family to come watch it in the Suite.  Perfect! I took tons of photos.
The Sassoon Suite bedroomLiving area in the Sassoon SuiteView of the Bund from the Sassoon Suite
The Dragon Phoenix Chinese restaurant was and is very famous for its decor and food.
The famous ballroom, the Peace Hall, is popular for Shanghai society weddings.
I loved seeing these moments in history throughout the hotel--Charlie Chaplin stayed here. 

I loved the beautiful entrance to the peaceful Willow Stream Spa. Great pool in the spa

China Preview

What a magical, inspiring trip.  Ten days in China, but not the China you think of.  I saw the rural and remote China, the breathtaking landscapes, kind people, and incredible history, sandwiched between time exploring the electric city of Shanghai and its cosmopolitan hotels. All led by the seasoned Abercrombie & Kent guide, Gerald Hatherly.

I am just coming out of my jet lag fog and so happy to be settled back in NYC for the holidays.

Here I am at the Three Gorges Dam, that famous dam project that displaced millions in the area. Being in the heart of it reminded me again that nothing is black and white, and so often grey.  In the West, most coverage depicted the dam as a wasteful government project that made people lose their homes.  In China, I talked to people that had been displaced and they were happy and given money to move. I learned why the dam was proposed, for power purposes but also to prevent floods that have killed millions in the region. The real story is a story where many people wanted the dam and many people didn't.  And it's so important to know both sides, whether you're a traveler passing through or a journalist.