The ancient treasures and modern wonders of China span 5,000 years of culture and history. Join Kelley Ferro, travel expert and video journalist, as she journey’s through Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing with USTOA tour operator member Wendy Wu Tours.
Catch a Glimpse of Ancient China
As one of the oldest ancient civilizations, China boasts a rich and long-established history and culture. Wendy Wu Tours gives Kelley Ferro a glimpse into the ancient culture of China from a visit to the Forbidden City and Shanghai Old Town, to an one-on-one lesson with a Tai Chi master.
Explore Modern Day China
China is a mix of old world tradition and new world sophistication. While traveling with Wendy Wu Tours, video journalist Kelley Ferro got an insider look at modern day China from meeting locals to exploring up-and-coming neighborhoods featuring hip cafes and bars.
Bucket List China
With sought-after experiences like climbing the Great Wall and walking amongst the Terracotta Warriors, China is a destination that appears on many traveler’s bucket lists. With the help of Wendy Wu Tours, video journalist Kelley Ferro gained unparalleled access to these legendary sights.
Experience China’s Vibrant Food Scene
From dumpling making lessons to exploring exotic street foods, Wendy Wu Tours itineraries provide travelers insider access to China’s vibrant food scene. Join travel expert Kelley Ferro as she eats her way through Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing.
I craned my neck to look into each doorway that we passed. We were moving along at good clip on a bike taxi, or “bike rickshaw,” through the narrow streets of a Beijing neighborhood. The streets were lined with high walls and intimidating doorways. These imposing facades gave very little insight into what lay behind…but I knew. They were hiding courtyards with bird cages, children playing, cats basking in the sun, old ladies hanging laundry. I was welcomed into one of these homes just moments before, to have lunch with the Fan family. This family welcomes travelers, entertains them with music and allows them to peek into this otherwise hidden daily life. I only had a taste of what was on the inside and I wanted to see more, so desperately I tried to catch glimpses through open doorways as we bounced by.
Bike rickshaws are a great speed for seeing a lot in a short amount of time
This neighborhood of Beijing is known as the “hutongs,” or what the locals refer to as “slums.” That word is a bit abrasive and I had a very different idea in my head of what we were going to find before we came here. As we bounced down the cobbled streets, vines crawling up impressive walls, old men playing mahjong on plastic tables down side streets, this didn’t feel at all like a slum. Sure, it was a little worse for wear in some areas, but these one story buildings were over a century old. It felt like one of the first times that I actually got a real insight into China’s culture.
They seemed to be having the best time
Thus far I had been exposed to the clean, precise streets of orderly Shanghai, the modernized historical city of Xi’an, with its manicured parks, and the hyper modern downtown area of Beijing which could have been New York City or Paris if you looked quickly. Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Burberry and Apple lined the streets and the busy crosswalks were filled with well-heeled Chinese carrying smartphones. Here in the sleepy, tree-lined hutongs, there were more birds chirping than car horns. Life was slower and moving at the same pace of the Chinese ancestors that lived here generations before. China’s door to personal life was left ajar.
Stunning doorways in the hutongs
Hutongs used to dominate Beijing but they’ve now been bulldozed to give way for the city’s rapid development. However, there are still several century old hutongs that have been preserved and exploring these will take you back in time. We went to the Nanluoguxiang hutong, one of the more popular in the area near the Forbidden City. Though it isn’t as wealthy or modern as other areas, there was energy there. A resurgence of youth had come back to these hutongs, choosing to appreciate the past instead of plow forward to the newer, faster, the shinier. On one block, old men were playing mahjong outside but on the other, a young couple shared headphones as they poured over their laptop, drinking chai lattes at a laid-back cafe. We hopped off the rickshaw to browse the kitschy shops selling minimalist homewares, succulents and vintage handbags. A number of restaurants and cafes caught my eye, and I typed their names on my iPhone, hoping for the chance to try them out on a return trip.
Chill cafes in the Nanluoguxiang hutong
But Bar Si…if grabbed our attention immediately. Two millennial men sat on wooden benches in front, wearing black t-shirts, eyeliner and smoking cigarettes. The unusual name is open-ended, giving the sense of “what if” or endless possibilities. It seemed appropriate for a hipster coffeehouse meets clubby bar located on a centuries old street. It also was decidedly quiet on this Friday afternoon. Understandably so, as it was crowded until early morning and is one of the nightlife destinations on this trip. Many of these sleepy cafes and bars morph into the city’s new in-the-know going out spot. After dusk, music flows from the open windows until daybreak. We grabbed a delicious coffee, ordered via a tablet menu, and we considered grabbing a cold beer from their impressive list (Brooklyn beer in Beijing, what!). But we had at least nine more hours of shooting, so we forged on!
Sherry Ott, equally impressed by Bar Si…if and its second level
Each coffee shop had personality
Hutongs were originally created by the Mongol Empire, the word meaning “water well.” They were designed to center around water and now that sense of community continues. The bathrooms of the hutongs are communal, with one shared single sex bathroom every few blocks. This feature was something I had never seen before and to be honest, was a bit hesitant about trying. But nature called and to my thankful surprise, they were very clean!
A glimpse down the narrow alley separating the courtyard houses
We continued to meander through the alleys around the districts notable Drum Tower. These maze like streets continued to baffle me with one seeming like a replica of Abbot-Kinney, another like it was 1915. It pains me that one of the most historical parts of the city has been diminishing. Back in 1990, 600 hutongs were destroyed each year. However, there’s been an effort to preserve more and more of these culturally significant, personal homes. The gentrification by the shops, cafes and bars like Si…if, may serve to help this preservation by bringing in more awareness from the local and tourist population as well. The authentic local life is what many of today’s travelers are looking for and for the sake of the remaining residents; I can only hope that they continue to flourish. My best tip is to go spend a day there, chat up the locals and enjoy this living history. And I’d suggest, don’t wait too long.
Mrs. Fan, performing a hauntingly beautiful song for us after lunch
Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in California. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month. She is also a contributor to Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.
Porsche? Nutcrackers? Harmonicas? Bach? I had no idea that Saxony, a free state in Germany, had so much going on! It wasn’t until my chat with Shireesh Sharma at the USTOA conference this past December that I realized the variety of types of art flourishing in a relatively small part of the world.
St Thomas Church, Leipzig
Saxony is a term often synonymous with Dresden, and after seeing this capital city, it makes total sense. Dresden, the home of a long line of royalty, hugs the Elbe River and boasts a majestic baroque skyline. However, Leipzig, the quieter sister of Dresden, captured me even more. Located on medieval trade routes in the time of the Roman Empire, Leipzig was a powerful city with renowned cultural importance back in the day. The home of Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Martin Luther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (and the list goes on), Leipzig is more than familiar with the arts. This city was built upon it. Bach composed in St. Thomas Church in the city center, Goethe’s Faust 1 was inspired by the city’s historic wine bar Auerbachs Keller, and Mendelssohn performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Concert Hall. And today, this city still pulsates with artistic energy. My independent tour with Avanti Destinations brought us to this city to experience the younger side of Saxony…and I’m sure glad that they did. Just walking the streets, I could feel and hear the buzz. Galleries, art schools, street performers…the past, present and future of art all blended together.
Outdoor Cinema at the Spinnerei
To me, nothing exemplifies Leipzig’s place in art more than the Spinnerei, officially named Leipziger Baumwollspinnerai. This 1884 cotton mill was one of the largest in Europe, producing five million kilograms of yarn in a single day. To accommodate that level of production, the mill had to be large, and I mean LARGE. It’s hard to comprehend the scale until you see it yourself but I can understand why it was dubbed a “city within a city.”
The factory compound spans several blocks complete with brick warehouses that previously housed spinning rooms, production halls, worker housing, and even a fire brigade. Now, these same buildings sport cracked windows, graffiti walls and ivy covered entrances. Eerily quiet on a Friday morning, from the outside, Spinnerei could be confused with a forgotten factory but inside, the darkened hallways told a very different story.
Hallways leading to LIA
“Most of the artists are sleeping,” Michael from the Information Office chuckled, as he led us inside one of the buildings.
After the Wall fell, Leipzig lost some of its former glory as an industry hub and places like the Spinnerei shut their doors. However, in 1994, the Spinnerei was reinvented. Local artists saw these massive, unoccupied spaces as the perfect location to set up shop, literally.
Werkschau Gallery at the Spinnerei
More than 100 artists have since filtered in and set up studios in the past 20 years and now the buildings have a new purpose. They are home to working studios, indie cinemas, galleries, cafes, rental apartments and more. There’s a one-stop-shop art supply store so the artists have access to all the materials they need. Even an underground bar and weekend nightlife scene has sprung up through this new artist “city.”
Entrance to the Werkshau Gallery
With 11 galleries, artists are getting exposure and many are selling their works to the curious public. One gallery in particular, Werkshau, displayed just one piece of work contributed by every artist at the Spinnerei. One corner had a 20×20 foot oil painting, around the other bend was an alleyway with a projector screening a video montage that reminded me of The Ring (art is subjective right?). In the middle of the space, I found myself moved by three human figures with fox faces, carved out of wood. Still there were more portraits, photography and installations, some of which incorporated movement, sound and light. And all these were produced by current Spinnerei artists, who were likely creating somewhere in the Spinnerei at that very moment.
A Foxy Werkshau Exhibit
Michael took us up to LIA, an artist in residency program where young artists from all over the globe come to collaborate, learn and make art, all while living in their own studio. They sleep, create and exhibit all in the same place. Luckily, our interviewee was awake when we knocked on her studio/home.
Kylie Lefkowitz is a multi-media artist from New Jersey and she’d been living in this large one room studio for the past 4 months. Her bed was tucked off in the corner featuring a James Franco calendar, piles of clothes and scattered art supplies on the floor, not unlike a typical college dorm room. The rest of the space was her exhibit…she was truly living her art. I liked how Kylie focused on words: messages, thoughts, musings and phrases that she expressed via all types of media. Each piece definitely made me think and feel.
Don’t’ feed the artists
We interviewed her as she swung on her hammock, telling us about living in Leipzig, being a part of LIA and calling this studio home – all with unbridled exuberance. We could have talked with her all day. Her candid stories were fascinating and it was through her that we realized just how impactful the Spinnerei really was and how it played a big role in Leipzig.
Some artists here use it as a workshop, a great studio space, she told us. The galleries draw large crowds, some of which are buyers. Other artists use the Spinnerei as a place to collaborate and be inspired. With so many artistic minds in one spot, it’s only natural for partnerships and co-working to take shape.
Walking out of her studio, down a hall that looked like it could be in a horror movie, I realized that so much of the charm of the Spinnerei was how it hasn’t been changed or commercialized. The rusty freight elevators creakily opened out onto dimly lit*, empty hallways. But behind the doors, around the corners, down the passageways were bright studios, natural light flooding in and art flooding out.
Not your average gallery
The Spinnerei hasn’t tried to cover or clean up it’s past. It embraces what it used to be; it preserves it and celebrates it. It allows art to spring up like weeds around the broken buildings, infusing them with new life. Yesterday’s artistic greats of Leipzig still hold the torch of some of the most monumental developments in the art and music world, but what is keeping Leipzig fresh, thought provoking and current, is what is happening at the Spinnerei.
This is a microcosm of what has happened in Saxony. It is a rebirth, a new beginning.
Leipzig might be most famous for its artists of the past but it is the artists of today that are taking Leipzig’s art scene into the future.
Kylie in her studio (and awesome tank top)
Author’s Note: I later learned the “dimness” was because the Spinnerei is a GREEN facility.
Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.