A Journey through China, Part One

by Scott Pierce

Photographer Robert Michael Poole at the Drum Tower in Tianjin, China.

After falling in love with Africa, world traveller and photographer Robert Michael Poole set his sights on China. “I wanted to explore its diversity,” he says, “and better understand what each region had to offer.” Exploring nine destinations across the country, he discovered dynamic cities and remote hideaways made for business, entertainment and relaxation.

BEIJING

The past two decades has brought a wave of technological and architectural innovation across Beijing. Although Robert had travelled to the city before, this trip felt different. “I was struck by exactly how much development has occurred,” he says. “Beijing’s sleek skyscrapers and easy subway system make it a fantastic modern city.”

At the centre of it is Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. “The whole aesthetic of the Hotel merges ambitiously modern patterns and shapes with historical elements of Chinese design,” he says. For example, EQUIS, the Hotel’s newest social lounge, consists of five rooms based on the city’s historical hutongs (alleyways). A compelling black-and-white corridor leads to the distinct spaces, creating a perfectly Instagrammable backdrop.

Just 30 minutes from the Hotel, visitors can escape to the past exploring the Forbidden City, the most visited palace in the world. More than 16 million tourists pour into the 72-hectare (178-acre) fortress annually. “It’s such an epic place,” Robert says. “In front of every building I saw vast open spaces with lovely tiling and little bridges that I wanted to photograph.”

Outside the Forbidden City lies Tiananmen Square. Robert spent time there before arriving at Jingshan Park. “It’s a place where locals go to watch the sunset,” Robert says. “You can look down upon the Forbidden City, and it’s absolutely spectacular.”

Four Seasons Hotel Beijing

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Another remarkable sight is only an hour and a half away: the Great Wall, one of the modern wonders of the world. “It never disappoints,” Robert says. “You can spend your whole day walking it and still only see a tiny percentage of it. You never lose that sense of how extraordinary it all is, no matter how much you spend your time there.”

If you’ve been to the Great Wall before, consider seeing it from a different perspective: the Concierge at the Hotel can organize a private helicopter tour for you and a companion.

TIANJIN

The international port city of Tianjin once faced numerous concessions by foreign powers, including Italy, France, Japan and the United States. Today, hundreds of distinctive buildings surrounded by towering skyscrapers recall the city’s global East-meets-West history.

One of the best places to see this dichotomy is at the skylit swimming pool at
Four Seasons Hotel Tianjin. “It’s one of my favourite pools ever,” Robert says. “You have this scenery that gives the impression that Tianjin is as big as a city like Shanghai. It’s just phenomenal. It shows that Tianjin is a city of the future.”

A five-minute walk away from the Hotel is the must-see China House, a modern museum composed of broken porcelain. “Every roof, ceiling and outer wall is covered with these little tiny pieces of pottery,” Robert says. “It’s extraordinary.”

Farther away, the distinctly modern Tianjin Eye also intrigued him. The giant Ferris wheel above the Yongle Bridge rotates up to almost 122 metres (400 feet) above the Hai River, offering views of the city as far as the eye can see.

Another place to see unique concession architecture is atop the reconstructed Drum Tower, which dates back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. “It’s sort of a symbol of the city,” Robert says. From the 27-metre (89-foot) tower, you can daydream while the city’s contemporary skyscrapers loom over streets filled with specialty boutiques.

HANGZHOU

Nestled by the serene waters of West Lake is Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in all of China,” Robert says. “West Lake is famous throughout poems and theatre. It’s just so calming and pleasant – it’s hard to believe that it’s just 45 minutes by train from Shanghai.”

Aboard a traditional rowboat, Robert relaxed while dining on dumplings, eggs and fruit. “After the food is unveiled, an oarsman will take you around a private part of the lake,” he says. “You go underneath little arched bridges that have obviously been there hundreds of years, and there’s absolutely no one around. It’s the most serene, mellow and beautiful experience.”

Another tranquil outing was with General Manager Michael Branham: “He’s a keen cyclist and so he likes to invite all guests to join him in the morning on a bicycle ride around the lake.”

Not far from the Hotel, Robert made his way up into Shi Sun Mountain and found a temple unlike any he’d seen before, Yong Fu Temple, which dates back to the Eastern Jin dynasty.

Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake

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“Most temples in Asia are red, but this one was yellow,” he says. “Across Asia, I’ve never seen a temple where all the exteriors are painted such a bright, warm yellow.” Inside, he photographed many statues, including one very well protected Buddha made of gold.

Afterwards, Robert took advantage of the Spa at the Hotel, where you can enjoy a black stone foot wash, followed by a bath infused with 60,000 dragon well tea leaves and an exfoliating tea scrub and body wrap.

SHANGHAI

As in Tianjin, Shanghai’s former concessions have retained much of their character, especially the elegant French Quarter. “That’s the one most people want to see,” Robert says, “and it’s right behind Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai in Puxi.”

Upon request, the Hotel will organize a tour for you within the French Concession with Gang Feng Wang, a local portrait and architecture photographer, who will show you the city’s hidden charms.

“He’s fantastic,” Robert says. “Because he lives in this particular concession, he has the ability to take you to places that regular visitors certainly could not go,” including his own house. “He’ll also take you inside other people’s homes because he knows everyone so well.”

Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai

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“You’re snapping complete strangers,” Robert says. “But Gang Feng Wang will stop and chat with everybody and he’ll introduce you to them and tell you who they are. Everyone is excited to share their story.”

Some of Robert’s favourite photos were taken in the kitchen of a new-found friend. “We were allowed to go into their house, and they’d just been cooking,” he says. “Everything was set up and steam was rushing from pots. Although it might look like it’s being created to showcase the China of the past, you’re able to get the sense that this was a real, living quarter.”

Shooting food can work up anyone’s appetite. Back at Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai, you have the choice of international fare at four diverse restaurants and two lounges, including spicy tuna tartare at Shintaro and dim sum delicacies at the Michelin-recommended Si Ji Xuan.

In Part Two of Robert’s travels, discover a different side of Shanghai and other cities in China, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau.

All photography by Robert Michael Poole