Putting Context into China

Few things have been as thrilling for me at Context as opening our China branches this year in Shanghai and Beijing. A passion for culture and love of place drives the group here, and our arrival in China has introduced a whole new history, heritage, and geography to the mix. This is the stuff we live for.


We opened our Beijing and Shanghai branches at the start of the season, based around small networks of local scholars such as sinologist Jeremiah Jenne, whom we profiled in this piece on Conde Nast Traveler’s blog and Stephen Roy Smith, a scholar of East Asian art who designed and leads our Pure Land: Buddhism in China walk. Our focus at first was on getting the basics right and covering the main sites and themes in each city. In Beijing, this meant getting some experts in dynastic history on board and focusing intently on fundamental walks like Tiananmen Square and the Making of Modern China and Daoism to Buddhism, our walk of the great temples in Beijing.


And, in my opinion, no one offers a more substantial Forbidden City tour than we do.


In Shanghai, we cover the fundamentals with a walk of the Bund that looks at how the city evolved during its heyday in the 1920s. There’s also our wonderful market tour with Shanghainese traditional lunch led by a coterie of chefs and food writers.


Once we had the basics under our belt, we began to look for new, innovative ways to approach these two cities—topics and themes that we know interest travelers, but for which there may be limited learning opportunities available. We’ve ended up with some pretty cool, funky walks.


One of the topics that’s on everyone’s minds are the headlines of China’s growth (and potential slowdown) and what this means for Chinese on the ground in Beijing and Shanghai. Current events are on travelers’ minds as much as history. In Beijing, we’ve responded with a fantastic new walk of the hutongs, the city’s historic alleyways, and how they are being transformed and reinvented by the creative industries like fashion, media, and design. Hip Hutongs is possibly one of the coolest, most innovative walks we offer, anywhere, and completely different from the very touristy “hutong tours” that you find on offer in hotels, etc.


In Shanghai, we offer a sister walk—Accelerated City—which looks at how China is envisioning and creating the future through development, constant change, and energy. It’s led by Anna Greenspan, a futurist, about whom you can read more on a recent blog post.


One of the perks of my job, as the founder of Context, is that I get to travel all the time to the best cities in the world. I’ve loved my trips to China this year so far. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with experts in Chinese history and culture, and have come away with an in-depth understanding of what’s driving the country and its mega cities. I understand that for many travelers China may represent a seemingly difficult destination: hard to navigate and understand. Yes, it’s challenging. The language is difficult. But, at the same time it’s never been easier to visit. The hotels and restaurants are amazing and easy to find, and with Context here we’ve got your cultural learning covered.


What are you waiting for?