Whether you’ve been to China several times or this is the first visit, don’t miss having “travel experiences” that will make your trip the most memorable. Either through art, music, sports, cuisine or more, these experiences are a growing offer by luxury hotels, resorts and tour companies, sought after for their exclusive access to historical, cultural and lifestyle activities and venues. Art happens to be one of my leading passions, so to start my journey I arranged with top flight Asian tour company Exotissimo, to include in my itinerary a Chinese brush painting session. More about Culture and Travel.
Not just any class, the company organized a private afternoon with grand master Mr. Niu Hongkai, who happens to be the instructor for Chinese President Xi Jinping. It’s difficult to get any more prestigious than that.
Brush painting with the master.
After having the ceremonial green tea in his studio, surrounded by his works and precious antiques including a 2,500 year old jade sculpture that at one point was on loan to the British Museum, the charming Mr. Niu put us to work. We first did practice exercises, which involved making circles with an oversize brush, to get fluidity in hand movements. At the same time, he explained that brush painting is about the “spirit” going “from the heart to the hand”. The brush, he explained, is the sixth finger, an extension of the body. We then set about to create an actual painting after observing him, his movements were quick and we wondered if creation was always this fast. “The execution itself is fast, but the process to get to that point is a long one”, he explained. When we left, we proudly carried our work in tow, along with brushes and practice paper, gifts from the master.
Exotissimo also arranged for us to have a private Tai Chi class at the Capital Mandarin School with one of the masters, Mr. Li, and his star pupil, Zhang Jiu Hua. Only having seen pictures of elderly people practicing the fluid movement in parks, I was surprised at the rigor and muscular strength needed. Probably the best example of this is an exercise we did with a long bamboo pole. We were encouraged to grab the pole and push it into the pupil’s stomach. Solely with his muscles, he repelled the pole.
In the studio of Zhang Xiao-Gang (left) in Beijing.
Beijing, rather than Shanghai, is the center of most of the country’s greatest artists today since it homes the Central Academy of Fine Arts. It was then no surprise that our visit to the home and studio of Zhang Xiao Gang, one of China’s leading artists ((he recently sold a piece at Sotheby’s for $12 million) was in the capital city. Proud owner of one of his works, I relished the coveted meeting while he taught his art and I observed his process. We also met with photographer Wang Quigsong and his talented wife at their home and studio. He’ll be showing an exhibit of gigantic photographic masterpieces in the fall, at Miami’s Frost Museum.
(L) Very large photo depicting the head of the Statue of Liberty with the torso of Chairman Mao by Wang Quigsong.
(R) Recent work by Zhang Xiao-Gang in his studio.
Exploring another of my passions, food, was easy thanks to travel experiences offered by Peninsula Hotels in what they call their Peninsula Academy. One of the activities they offer is a selection of cooking classes, which come with different twists in each of their Asian hotels. In Beijing, we went with Chef Sam to the famed old section called hutongs, sampled a typical Beijing breakfast made with different varieties of bean paste and soy, and visited one of many major fruit, vegetable and fish markets throughout this city of more than 21 million residents.
The chef explained the more unusual ingredients and how they’re used in cooking, an ideal antecedent to our dumplings and spring rolls class. Truth be told, we didn’t make the dumplings from scratch and we were grateful for that after seeing all of the ingredients that need to be chopped up for the fillings. We got the good part – the eating. Afterwards, we visited the Chinese kitchen and saw the chefs in action with their woks, learning that it can take the Number One Wok, as the top chef is called, 18 years of moving up the ladder to reach that position. We left with our diploma, an apron, chef’s toques, recipes and a large dose of inspiration to try our hand at Chinese cooking at home. More articles about international gastronomy.
Dumpling making with Chef Sam at The Peninsula Beijing.
In Shanghai, we opted for the Academy’s art tour lead by leading gallerist Ming Ming Chen of AroundSpace. We toured the hotel’s impressive art collection, visited several art museums, enjoyed in-depth commentary on the works and art trends, and were surprised to learn that there’s a private museum – the Long — that recently opened. The day ended with a visit to the Pearl Lam Gallery, who has sold several works to the Rubells, leading art collectors and founders of the Rubell Family Collection museum in my hometown, Miami.
We wish we had had time for more of the Peninsula Academy experiences that caught our eye, ranging from a helicopter tour of the Great Wall or kite making class at Tiananmen Square, to a chance to dress up and take the stage like a Chinese opera star, or a tour of architectural landmarks in a Rolls Royce Phantom. Next time for sure. ■