Imperial Tours: Luxury Tours in China - Blog Slide Image

Chinese Getaway


by Hilary Stafford-Clark

Sunday Times MagazineOnce in China it becomes obvious that for all but the most intrepid first-timer, a guided tour is almost essential. There is just too much to see, too much to absorb, in this vast country where 5,000 years of history are colliding head-on with the 21st century. Guidebooks, particularly those to Shanghai, are mainly out of date; few people speak English; and signs, except in the cities, are in Mandarin. The Beijing-based Imperial Tours, run by Guy Rubin and his wife, Nancy, specialises in luxury guided tours for groups and individuals. Having met at Beijing University in 1997 and after two years of acting as unpaid host and guides to a growing flood of friends and acquaintances, they decided to put their knowledge and expertise to work.

Our tour of four cities –Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin and Shanghai- is seamlessly planned. We turn up, as if by magic, in all the right places at just the right time, always accompanied by local experts. Our foray to the Great Wall is a spectacular success. We have an entire stretch-winding dragonlike from horizon to horizon through misty hills-to ourselves, with lunch laid on starched white tablecloths on one of the great watchtowners. Tow days later, after internal flight to Xi’an and a night at the Sheraton-and while the hordes of mainly Japanese tourists are still in bed-we have a private view of another wonder of the eastern world: the terracotta warriors.

After a short flight south, we check into the perfectly named Paradise at Yangshuo, nestling among lush, tooth-shaped green hills outside Guilin. Here we float on bamboo rafts past cormorant-fishermen in coolie hats and sleek, grey-brown water buffalo, standing knee-deep to drink between ploughing shifts. 

In our short time in China we have consumed a staggering eight lunches and nine dinners. There was a 10-coures banquet at Beijing’s China Club: a 17th-century palace, converted into a restaurant 45 years ago and now owned by the entrepreneur David Tang. After a performance by red-robed, cartwheeling mentalbar-breaking Shaolin monks(one of Imperial Tours’ little surprises), we were led into the lantern-lit interior to be served shark-fin soup in a papaya, and peking duck, by the same waitress who regularly served Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping. Then there was the glorious anarchy of the Green T House in Beijing, with its 30ft dining table, around which our chairs with their 10ft-hight backs formed a virtual cage, penetrated with difficulty by the waiters. Succulent, slow-baked leg of lamb is a speciality of one of Shanghai’s hottest tables, the Conranesque M on the Bund, with its balcony overlooking the lights along the waterfront, besides the restored deco building where Armani recently set up shop.

Above it all, the elegant pagoda-like pinnacles of the Jin Mao Tower reigns supreme. And after three nights in Room 6017, thought I still haven’t parted the curtains, my knees no longer turn to jelly when the lift shoots me here at an ear popping 1.3 floors a second. After a couple of glasses of champagne, sitting with my bake to the windows, I’ve even managed a banquet on the 88th floor. And I’ve swum, all alone, in a palatial pool on the 57th. On my last morning, I think the time has come to open those curtains. I draw them aside, sit back in the armchair and take in that magnificent view.

©January 23, 2005 The Sunday Times Magazine