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Garden of the Humble Administrator – Suzhou, Jiangsu, China

Landscape Art That Still Casts a Spell

An ancient Chinese proverb remains true today: “In Heaven there is paradise; on earth, Suzhou.” Known as the Venice of the East, and with more than 100 gardens and as many silk factories, Suzhou was one of the oldest and wealthiest cities in the empire during the Ming dynasty, and was mentioned by Marco Polo when he wrote about the fabu­lous cities of the East.

Suzhou’s gardens are the very embodiment of Chinese landscape design, with every rock, plant, path, stone lan­tern, and pond carefully placed so that each step frames another impeccable vista. The Lingering Garden and Garden of the Humble Administrator enjoy special designation and government protection as two of China’s four most important gardens.

The latter is the larg­est, built on 10 acres of marshy lakes and pools connected by graceful arched bridges and stepping-stone pathways. Your impres­sion is that the entire middle section of the garden is floating on water.

The city, with dozens of silk factories still in operation, is fascinating in itself. Detrac­tors of Venice will see the same decrepitude and decadence here, but for others this photo­genic, canal-threaded city still casts its spell effortlessly.

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Victoria Harbour and Victoria Peak – Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong by Ferry and Funicular

At any given hour, it looks like a round of bumper boats in the crowded waters of Victoria Harbour as the Star Ferry threads its way through a melee of tugs, barges, commuter boats, and the occasional junk, sampan, and gleaming cruise ship.

The busy deepwater harbor, China’s most important, is the soul and centerpiece of this dynamic port city and the place for which it was named: In Old Chinese, Hong Kong means “fragrant harbor.” Since 1898 the two-tiered green-and-white ferries have been transporting visitors and commuters from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and back. It is one of the world’s most unforgettable ten-minute ferry rides, not only for the drama of the round-the-clock aquatic rush hour, but to view Hong Kong’s granite forest of skyscraping banks and trading companies that stand as expressionless monoliths by day, illuminated towers of energy by night. Go first class – the upper deck guarantees a better perspective.

Then again, second class promises better people-watching. Even better views are to be had via the world’s steepest funicular railway, which has been making the climb to the 1,805- foot Victoria Peak and its relative peace and quiet since 1888. Up top you can marvel at the world’s busiest harbor, some of the 235 outer islands dotting the South China Sea, and, when the weather is clear, the distant coast of main­land China. Landscaped gardens and paved paths such as Governor’s Walk provide solitude and greenery.

Each time of day has its own magic, but dusk may be the most special as an orgy of neon begins to grip the city, the Manhattan of Asia. Dining is available (as, unfortunately, are the kind of souvenir hawkers you hoped to leave below), but it’s really all about the view.

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Tea at the Peninsula – Hong Kong, China

The Grand Duchess of the Far East

If it’s late afternoon in Hong Kong, what better way to absorb the city’s colonial past than beneath the gilded, coffered ceiling of the Peninsula’s exquisite lobby? A virtual shrine to past empires, it has been the venue of choice for a sedate afternoon tea for lucky hotel guests, and those who wish they were, since its doors opened in 1928.

Everyone is here: international business­men, frazzled shoppers, impeccably groomed tai tais from Hong Kong’s old-moneyed families, the wide-eyed and curi­ous. Cognoscenti know to order the traditional Peninsula tea of trimmed finger sandwiches, delicate French pastries, and scones with clotted cream, which arrive on three-tiered silver servers carried by waiters in starched uniforms. The graciousness and grandeur are palpable, keeping the blunt and impatient city at bay.

This is a cool oasis of civilization, in both the neoclassical landmark building or its new thirty-story state-of-the-art tower topped with the theatrical Philippe Starck-designed restaurant Felix, as cutting-edge and high-energy as the lobby is dignified and resplen­dent. In between, classically appointed rooms-with-a-view are some of the most invit­ing accommodations anywhere.

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Hotel Intercontinental – Hong Kong, China

Cutting-Edge Elegance on the Kowloon Waterfront

Perched at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula and actually built out over the harbor’s edge, the Intercontinental isn’t just the city’s haute hotel, it’s the social vortex, the ultimate see-and-be-seen scene. The heart-stopping views from its 40-foot windows make this one of the most visually stunning hotel lobbies in the world.

The Intercontinental shares this 180-degree uninterrupted view of Hong Kong’s skyline and unceasing water traffic with its newly refurbished Lobby Lounge, and Yü, the hotel’s unique seafood restaurant and oyster bar, where your dinner is still swim­ming in floor-to-ceiling water tanks as you enter.

The Intercontinental’s famed Chinese restaurant, Yan Toh Heen, is lauded as one of Asia’s – and the world’s – finest. Traditional Cantonese cuisine is served on exquisite table settings of hand-carved jade and ivory. Guest rooms share the same recurring view, one of the most exciting in the world at any time of day, and the deluxe terrace suites have their own outdoor Jacuzzis.

Hong Kong boasts some of the world’s most opulent, service-minded hotels, and the Intercontinental is one of the best places to be coddled and pampered, to revel in white-glove service and treat your palate and eye to meals with views you didn’t think existed, hoping your business expense account is picking it all up.

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The Li River – Guilin, Guangxi, China

The Magical China of Poets and Painters

Reputed to possess the most beautiful mountains and rivers under heaven, Guangxi Province has been eulogized for thirteen centuries by painters and writers who tried to capture its unearthly karst formations on paper. A cruise down the Li River is like entering a classic Chinese scroll painting of mist, moun­tains, and rivers.

From Guilin, the jade-green Li wends its way through spectacular, almost surreal scenery of humpbacked and eroded shapes with whimsical names like Bat Hill, Five Tigers Catch a Goat, and Painting Brush Peak. The timeless riverside landscape seems oblivious to the constant stream of tour boats that ply single-file past picturesque villages where young boys bathe the family water buf­falo, women wash their clothes, and farmers plow the rice fields. Some fishermen on skinny bamboo rafts still employ cormorants that are trained to dive and trap fish in their beaks. A ring placed around their necks stops them from swallowing the catch.

The small town of Yangshuo is the southern terminus of the cruises, and though it may not be the “real China” – cybercafés, B&Bs, and cafés offering “American Brunch” have sprung up to cater to foreign tourists – prices are cheap, the locals are friendly, and everyone speaks English.

A bike ride through the surrounding green plains and the forest-covered limestone peaks allows you to see some of China’s most remarkable scenery. Some of the peaks can even be climbed:

From the summit at Moon Rock, a dramatic army of jagged peaks goes marching off into the dis­tance. For back-lane scenes of traditional China and even more remarkable scenery, the rustic riverside village of Xingping is an hour’s bike ride away past emerald-green rice paddies and striking landscapes.

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The Hutongs of Beijing – Beijing Province, China

A Pedicab into the Vanishing Alleyways of Old Peking

The bustling, polluted Chinese capital of American fast food, traffic jams, and aesthetics-free architecture is one of Beijing’s two sides.

The other can be glimpsed by taking a pedicab trip through narrow, labyrinthine alleyways (hutongs) where only the awning-covered vehicles can maneuver. In quiet corners of Beijing, far from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, honking horns give way to the occasional ding of bicycle bells and the sound of chickens and ducks from inside walled courtyards – the lingering vestiges of traditional everyday life in a city projected to reach a population of 15 million by the year 2040.

Go soon: The simple single-story houses in these pre-Communist urban villages are quickly being torn down and replaced by sterile high-rise monoliths and Western-style shopping malls, and in the process, traditional neighborhoods and life­styles that go back to the Qing dynasty and beyond are being lost.

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The Great Wall – Beijing Province, China

Ancient China’s Work of Genius

Long a symbol of the country’s strength, the Great Wall of China – Wan Li Chang Cheng, or the Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li – has captured the imagination of people worldwide throughout its history. Said to be the only manmade structure visible from the moon, it was built piecemeal over a period of 2,000 years as a defense against marauding nomadic tribes from the north.

Some sections may have been constructed as early as the 8th century B.C., but it was not until the unification of the empire in 221 B.C. that the various sections of the wall were linked up to span some 3,750 miles. Over a million workers – peasants, sol­diers, and prisoners – were involved in the construction, building it wide enough to allow ten soldiers or five horses to travel abreast between the 10,000 battlements and watchtowers.

The wall was primarily built to keep foreigners out, but today it’s a primary draw that lures them in. Only one third of the orig­inal wall remains, and on the average day its restored viewing points are barely able to accommodate the hordes of tourists and the carnival of kitsch souvenir vendors and T-shirt stands.

Despite the zoolike atmos­phere, a glimpse of the wall, serpentining its way across the serene mountains and valleys like an imperial ridge-backed dragon, is the only real way to understand what a colossal human feat it represents.

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The Forbidden City – Beijing, Beijing Province, China

Where Mere Mortals Dared Not Enter

The magnificent Forbidden City, so named because it was off-limits to com­moners for 500 years, was the imperial court for twenty-four emperors from the early days of the Ming dynasty in the 15th century until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. It is the largest, most complete, and best-preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China, representing the work of battalions of laborers.

Fires and lootings over the years have left a largely post-18th-century shell that mimics its original layout, and much of its storied wealth and opulent furnishings are long gone. Nonetheless, this vast complex of halls, pavilions, courtyards, and walls is a masterwork of architectural bal­ance, monumental but never oppressive. A self-guiding tape narrated by Roger Moore helps bring it alive, with tales of eunuchs, concu­bines, ministers, priests, court intrigues, and terrific excesses.

Occupying more than 183 acres, the expansive complex earns the title of “city.” It was not unusual for emperors and servants alike never to venture beyond the moat-surrounded 35-foot walls and formidable gates – ever. That they believed themselves to be at the cosmic center of the universe is a fantasy visitors can readily appreciate today.

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Classic Restaurants of Beijing – Beijing Province, China

From the Humble to the Theatrical

Leaving Beijing without having experienced Peking duck is tantamount to bypassing bistecca alla fiorentina in Florence. Head for Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. It is one of the oldest restaurants in Beijing (dating back to 1864) and the most popular place to experi­ence China’s culinary gem.

The centuries-old procedure begins at special farms on the out­skirts of town, where white-feathered Beijing ducks are raised on grain and soybeans to fat­ten them up. Once in the kitchen, the ducks are hung to dry and later lacquered with molasses, filled with air, hung on hooks, and slowly roasted over an open fire – which diners can watch through a glass wall.

The entire duck is ceremoniously served in stages – first the plump boneless meat and crispy skin with side dishes of shallots, plum sauce, and crepes. Foreigners will feel pretty proud of themselves for hav­ing ventured out­side their hotel’s safe, tame restau­rants … until they catch a glimpse of what the local fam­ily at the next table has ordered: duck’s gizzards, tongues, wings, hearts – everything from the web to the quack.

If your visit to the Forbidden City has fostered a fascination with things imperial, dine at Fangshan Restaurant. Since 1925 this prestigious res­taurant has been preserving the extravagant cuisine of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), using the favored recipes of the 19th-century imperial court. In a lavish theatrical setting, the staff (in full vintage imperial garb) shows travelers what it might have been like to dine with the last Dowager Empress, who had 128 cooks.

The kitchen still produces over-the-top banquets, and traditional delicacies such as shark’s fin or bird’s nest soup are fit for a royal palate. Fangshan’s setting couldn’t be more appropriate: an ancient pavilion on an island in the middle of Bei Hai Lake, just past the Bridge of Perfect Wisdom.

For a similar yet less theatrical, more intimate experience, try the Family Li Res­taurant, where six family members work around the clock to duplicate the royal recipes of the Qing dynasty for eight to twelve extremely lucky diners. Handed down by a great-grandparent who worked at the imperial court, hundreds of these ancient recipes were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s but have been recalled to the best of the Li family’s ability. The results are worth the two-month wait for dinner reservations. Visiting diplomats, local expats, the occa­sional Rockefeller, and ardent food lovers from around the world all make their way to this tiny restaurant, where they dine at the lone table lit by a single fluorescent bulb.

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Midsummer Eve – Tallberg, Svealand, Sweden

The Fleeting Return of Long Summer Days and a Pagan Celebration of Nature

All of Scandinavia celebrates the Nordic festival of Midsummer (Midsommar), but perhaps nowhere as enthusiastically as in Sweden. This ancient Germanic custom honoring life itself has ancient pagan roots – a fertility rite, it was held at the exact time the sun and earth were considered at the peak of their reproductive powers.

Everyone takes to the countryside, often dressing in colorful local costumes, resuscitating old-world traditions, eating favorite foods, and imbibing substantial amounts of aquavit, resulting in folks of all ages and sorts singing and dancing. Young girls believe they will dream of their future husbands if they sleep with a freshly picked bouquet of nine different wildflowers under their pillows. But who can tell when it’s time to sleep during the long hours of the midnight sun, when even birds are confused?

One of the best places to celebrate Midsommar is in Sweden’s central rural province of Dalarna around the beautiful Lake Siljan, a hilly area often referred to as Sweden’s “folklore district.” Traditions and customs are lovingly kept alive, thanks in great part to local old-time families such as the Åkerblads.

Experience it by visiting their eponymous 15th-century red-framed farmstead, which they converted to an inn in 1910. The mix of antiques (think canopied beds and grandfather clocks) and decorative paintings and carvings found throughout enhances the old-fashioned country atmosphere for which Dalarna is famous. Don’t miss the chance to eat here: Swedes come from all parts to do just that.