Beijing Sideways offers sidecar touring in and around Beijing. // © 2012 Beijing Sideways
Knowing where to start exploring and experiencing Beijing or Shanghai, China’s two largest, most intriguing cities, can seem a little daunting. But as the tourism industries in each city have diversified and matured over the past five years, so too has the range of private tour options. Offerings such as Beijing food walks, private hikes on un-reconstructed sections of the Great Wall and expert commentary on Shanghai’s art deco architecture and Jewish history provide fascinating takes on these classic cities.
Unique Beijing Itineraries
One thing that is top of mind for many visitors to China is food. The capital’s signature Peking duck dish frequently magnetizes hungry clients, but Beijing’s diverse culinary traditions have resulted from its history of attracting settlers from across this vast nation. These migrants to Beijing brought not just their own dishes, but also their ingredients and culinary preparations. Hias Gourmet offers regional Chinese cooking classes, as well as guided food walks. A popular choice is the Hutong Street Snack Walk, which enables clients to sample a range of sweet and savory foods hailing from across China. Another option is a Chinese Tea Tasting Safari to experience the city’s famous Maliandao Tea Street.
One of the capital’s most inventive tour companies is Beijing Sideways. Downtown traffic gets very congested, but clients can sit back and enjoy a guided trip around the hutongs and the backstreets of Beijing — plus daytrips to the Great Wall of China — in the sidecar of a 1930’s Chinese motorcycle. The Great Wall trip transports clients through rural Chinese villages to the picturesque, rarely visited Great Wall sections at Huanghuashan or Shengtengyu. A hike along the Great Wall is followed by a picnic lunch in an ancient stone watchtower overlooking the valley. And, of course, the open-air ride back to the city is exciting and memorable.
Another off-beat option involving wheels is an after-dark drive in Madame Mao’s Red Flag Limo. Only 100 of the black Hongqi limousines were made in China during the ’60s, and Red Capital Club — a small hutong hotel decorated in retro Mao-era style — has converted one for tour clients. The 50-minute limousine tour passes by Beijing’s signature modern sights in timeless style, and clients get to sip champagne and savor Russian caviar as they ride.
For clients preferring a self-guided tour, China-based author Paul French’s novel “Midnight in Peking” recreates the unsolved 1930’s murder of a British woman in Beijing. The book is set around the Dongbianmen Tower — known at the time as the Fox Tower, because it overlooked a wasteland said to be haunted by evil fox spirits. Clients can retrace key locations from the book by following the downloadable walking map and audio tour with commentary from the author. This intriguing investigation of Beijing from a different era begins at the scene of the crime, the Fox Tower, and passes through ancient hutongs and the stately Legation Quarter.
Shanghai may lack Beijing’s imperial grandeur, but it boasts a magnificent collection of art deco and neoclassical architecture from the ’20s and ’30s. The stories behind these fine buildings are often as impressively mystical as the architecture itself. Resident historian and heritage architectural expert Patrick Cranley is the founder of Historic Shanghai and was closely involved in Shanghai’s successful bid to host the 2015 World Congress on art deco. He guides a range of highly knowledgeable private walking tours on historic themes, including Art Deco Shanghai, Revolutionary Shanghai and the city’s unique lilong lane neighborhoods.
Texas-born, Shanghai-based architect Spencer Dodington has taken his study of Shanghai buildings to the ultimate level by restoring and restyling several homes in the city’s historic lanes. His knowledge of local architectural styles is impeccable, and he guides private tours through the former French Concession and the Bund. Dodington’s company, Luxury Concierge, also manages guided trips through the famous Chinese gardens and private estates in the city of Suzhou, located 30 minutes away by train from Shanghai.
Dvir Bar-Gal, a locally based Jewish historian, photographer and documentary filmmaker, brings alive Shanghai’s rich Jewish history. Back in the roaring ’20s, several of Shanghai’s finest buildings were financed by Jewish entrepreneurs. Later, during World War II, Shanghai became a refuge for thousands of Eastern European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Today, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in Hongkou stands as a memorial to those desperate times. Bar-Gal’s comprehensive walking tours include detailed explorations of the WWII ghetto, plus areas of Shanghai developed by Jewish financiers in the 1920s and ’30s, which today stand as timeless reminders of the city’s golden architectural age.
Clients seeking a more athletic tour option can lace up their running shoes and join Untour Shanghai. Its Run the Town tour each Wednesday is a gentle-paced jogging tour guiding clients through the architectural intricacies of the former French Concession, plus the city’s downtown parks, temples and food markets before finishing on the riverside Bund. If walking is preferred, Untour also offers a twice-weekly breakfast tour at this pace. Wake up with the locals and join them at Shanghai’s most popular morning snack food locations to try the city’s famous dumplings, rolled egg pancakes and steamed buns.