While it’s very nice to live in New York, sometimes we can’t help but fantasize about packing a carry-on and whizzing off to some exotic locale. Since that’s not an option, we live vicariously through others—specifically Christine Ajudua, our global editor-at-large. Every month, the veteran travel writer and editor will be keeping us up-to-date on product discoveries, up-and-coming destinations, and more. First up: the amazing finds she picked up in China.
What can I tell you about my first whirlwind of a trip to the Middle Kingdom? Among many other things: yes, I did go to the Great Wall, and it was indeed great. (In the words of Andy Warhol, per the 15 Minutes Eternal exhibit making its way around China, “You know, you read about it for years. And actually, it was really great. It was really, really, really great.”)
Also, when you’re visiting a country that manufactures just about everything for everywhere plus knock-offs galore, and relying on Google Translate or signs like these, finding locally made products with actual provenance can be a challenge. I once tried taking my quest to a Sasa (it’s like a lower-end Sephora, based in Hong Kong) and was shown to the Oil of Olay section.
Buying local is a big part of my travel MO. It is not so much that I want souvenirs—it’s more that if I need something, and usually that’s something along the lines of face wash or footwear or food, I figure why not try the thing I can’t find at home? It’s culture by way of consumption.
On that note, here are some of my favorite packable discoveries from the PRC:
BA YAN KA LA
This all-natural skin- and hair-care brand—named after the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau mountain range from which it sources glacial water for its products—was in my bathroom at the Grace Beijing, a sweet little hotel with a “modern take on Ming Dynasty décor.” At the Ba Yan Ka La flagship in Shanghai, I stocked up on shower oil and lip balm made with healing Chinese ingredients like hawthorn fruit and lotus seed extract. 1221 Changle Rd.; 86-400/668-8480; bayankala.com
As for homegrown fashion designers, Bai Peng is one to watch. I stumbled upon his multi-level warehouse-turned-shop, filled with edgy tops and billowy trousers in black, white, or red, while gallery hopping in Beijing’s 798 Art District. Outside, he’s set up a small café and vintage market (if you’re looking for printed culottes, head here). 1 Ceramic St.; 86-10/5762-6155
(Photo: Christine Ajudua)
ECO & MORE
The tagline says it all: “Made Green in China.” Bath, body, and home products, that is—including handmade soy candles in travel size—with scents so wonderfully refreshing that you might just forget about any pollution hanging in the air. (Before stepping outside, you’ll want to download this app to check the daily AQI, just in case.) Owner Jeni Saeyang has been tapping like-minded local brands to set up an “eco village” complete with a sustainable design store and (thankfully) Shanghai’s first oxygen bar near the former French concession. 485 Fenglin Lu, Shanghai; 86-400/920-1286 or 86-186/1662-5317; eco-more.com
Soon after arriving in Shanghai I noticed that everyone seemed to be wearing retro canvas kicks from this circa-1920 brand, basically the Converse of China. A classic white pair quickly replaced my Chuck Taylors. Culture Matters, a shoebox of a sneaker store, has the most styles; some of them are hand-painted. 15 Dongping Lu; feiyue-shoes.com15 Dongping Lu; feiyue-shoes.com
You can’t go to Hangzhou, with its willow-flanked West Lake, and not try its famous green tea. I went straight to the source: Longjing Village, along a steep and winding road lined with local farmers who, as soon as you step out of your taxi, start beckoning you into their homes for tastings. These are legit operations. If you ever find yourself in the area, take at least one of them up on the invitation; and if you like what you sip, buy a tin (I wish I bought more). It’s the freshest you’ll find.
(Photo: Christine Ajudua)
For more of Christine’s adventures, catch up with her here.