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Chinese cities: From Beijing to Shanghai

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Beijing

China’s burgeoning influence in the fashion world is matched by its growing presence as a travel destination. Stylist’s Anna Fielding takes in the capital

Beijing is not a pretty city. I knew that delicate traditional tea houses and pools of lazy carp were outdated stereotypes, but I wasn’t prepared for all the concrete. Still, I was thrilled to visit the city that feels like the centre of the world right now. It may not be beautiful, but it is dynamic and fascinating; growing rapidly as a business centre, the home of a lively art scene and China’s political centre. And it has landmarks dating from the country’s dynastic past such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace and just outside the city, the incredible Great Wall. It also boasts amazing modern buildings like the state television company CCTV’s tower, a futuristic twisted square designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

There’s also The Opposite House, where I’m staying, one of the city’s few boutique hotels, a green glass cube in east Beijing. Here, there is another great wall. The hotel has free Wi-Fi but you’re thwarted by China’s firewall. No Twitter. No Facebook. No web-based email. Thankfully, the rooms have other forms of relaxation. The oak bath is a joy: perfectly square with high sides and large enough for a woman of 5’2” to lie completely submerged. The rooms are minimal and loft-style with well-stocked mini bars. Floor-to-ceiling windows add to the clean lines and airy feel.

The Opposite House is in the Sanlitun area of Chaoyang District and sits next to a new shopping area, Sanlitun Village with my room looking out onto a giant Miu Miu hoarding, covering a large store due to open. The north part, nearest the hotel, houses some serious designer names: Marni, Balenciaga and Christian Louboutin. The southern half hosts international high street stores such as Muji and Esprit. For names you can’t get at home look out for Hong Kong jewellery brand Chow Sang Sang or young streetwear label Hi Panda. A five-minute walk away is Yashow Market: stuffed with fake designer clothes, knickknacks, tailors and jewels. It’s worth haggling: I picked up a string of real pearls for 500 yuan (£49).

Chaoyang District is also home to a lively bar scene and street food stalls. Mesh, The Opposite House’s bar, is the place for cocktail fans: the smoked salmon martini is impressive, if polarising. More traditionally there are the hutongs: neighbourhoods of small traditional houses and narrow streets. Guests at The Opposite House can take a motorbike-and-sidecar tour through the low-lying grey buildings, roaring past children doing homework and elderly ladies with fans. The traditional hutongs incorporated materials from the old city wall then, in turn, many of the hutongs were demolished to make way for modern buildings. (The structures in Beijing are constantly rising and falling.)

The steadfast structure of course is the Great Wall, standing for over two millennia. Even seeing a segment is enough to understand its greatness. The section at Mutianyu tends to be less busy than others and if you wish to feel less reverent you can toboggan down from the wall, along a silver slide in a go-cart on sled runners. My Wall visit was one of the increasingly rare days of clear blue sky. Just last month the air quality in Beijing fell so far that breathing became hazardous. My boyfriend’s father spent weeks in Beijing in the mid-Eighties. He remembers swarms of bicycles around Tiananmen Square. Now the square is surrounded by multiple lanes of traffic. In the hutongs girls in Comme des Garçons T-shirts walk out of courtyards several hundred years old. We know China is changing. In Beijing it happens before your eyes.

Rooms at The Opposite House start from CNY 2,125 (£215) +15% service charge; theoppositehouse.com

Shanghai

Lizzie Pook, Stylist’s junior writer, on the vintage gems and peaceful corners of China’s largest metropolis

A curious mix of neon lights, soaring skyscrapers and Buddhist temples rise out of the smog as you fly into Shanghai, on China’s eastern seaboard. It may be one of the most populous – let’s face it, crowded – cities in the world (with 23.5 million inhabitants) but it’s also home to an absolute cracker of a skyline soaring above a heady mix of Chinese and Western cultures.

As cliched as it might be, it’s not hard to see why the city has been dubbed the Paris of the East, given its quaint pedestrianised quarters, quirky cafes (our favourite is the tiny vintage-style LA Café on Nanjing Xi Lu), burgeoning fashion scene and amazing flea markets. The Anxi Market at 1335 Anshun Lu never fails to yield some vintage gems (and is the go-to place for battered-but-chic leather goods). Shimen Yi Lu, near Dagu Lu is the road to visit if you’ve ever dreamt of finding a Hermès handbag hidden at the back of a second-hand shop, and the monthly night market at DADA is also a must for flea market enthusiasts.

However, you can’t visit Shanghai without taking a stroll down The Bund, the iconic and bustling main waterfront where you can gawp at the explosion of Western-style gothic, baroque and Romanesque architecture. Stay at the Waterhouse at South Bund, a Thirties warehouse converted into a 19-room boutique hotel overlooking the Huangpu River (rooms from £125 per night – waterhouseshanghai.com).

For those looking for respite from the city’s noise, the beautiful ancient Yuyuan Garden, best seen at sunset, is one of the few places you’ll actually find traditional architecture. And in Fuxing Park in the middle of the city’s colonial-era French Concession, you’ll find sycamore trees and stuccoed villas.

The flower port in Donghai Farm is another of the city’s best-kept secrets – from March to mid-May every year, a stunning three million tulips are on show. For the sartorially inclined, though, the main event has to be the city’s very own fashion week – a true-toits- roots affair which takes place twice each year.

Flights from London to Shanghai available from £614; cathaypacific.co.uk

Guangzhou

Stylist’s features writer Amy Grier reveals a city embracing its flourishing cultural side

A frenetic city on China’s south coast, the first thing that hits you, aside from the heaving streets and eight-lane highways, is the languorous Pearl River, which you can sail down, drink on or walk beside – depending on your mood.

But while the perpetually slate-grey skies of Guangzhou might not be great for sunbathing, they do make for ideal shopping conditions. A good place to start is Shangxiajiu, a pedestrianised street of local and international shops and covered malls. Look out for the cluster of buildings opposite the Liwan Plaza (a seven-floor jewellery mall) where you can barter for locally made clothes, shoes and leather goods. If you are looking for luxury however, a trip to the La Perle mall is in order – choose from Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior and Céline.

But if you want to hang out where the locals like to be seen, head to Taojin Lu, the new ‘It’ neighbourhood in the north. Bursting with bars and shops, our favourites were Friend’s Daily (bakery by day, wine bar by night), C:Union (for table football and free popcorn) and select fashion boutique KJ04 BUX .

No trip to Guangzhou is complete without a visit to the opera house, designed beside the Pearl River by Zaha Hadid and opened in 2010. Whether you have a ticket or just want to wander around the cavernous, futuristic structure, it’s the best example of how this once industrial city is becoming the country’s cultural hub. And tourism is burgeoning as a result.

Sofitel Guangzhou (rooms from £171 per night; sofitel.com) is leading the charge; luxurious, decadent and with striking views of this energetic metropolis.

Cathay Pacific flies four times a day between London Heathrow and Hong Kong with interconnecting flights to 140 destinations including 40 in China. Book your flights to China via Hong Kong from £749; cathaypacific.co.uk

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