In a park in Beijing, couples of all ages dance joyfully to recorded music in one area, each pair in their own world, while elsewhere two young men kick a shuttlecock back and forth with acrobatic skill. In another clearing, eight musicians play a lively tune on red-tasseled reed instruments as a little boy, enraptured, claps along—until their leader stops to give instructions, after which they all give in to laughter.

People also perform enthusiastic opera arias in the large park, which reminds me a bit of the spirit behind Opera Night in Northport, a monthly Long Island institution that allows serious singers to show off their accomplishments. Here, it’s more of a free-for-all. People use the public park as their concert hall, rehearsal space, gym and clubhouse. Others, like my husband and me, are happy to be spectators.

I couldn’t stop smiling—or feeling astonished.

Much of our two-week trip to three cities and surrounding areas in China was filled with such moments of surprise. Here we were, sharing in a sense of community that felt both familiar and exotic in a country half way around the globe from home, a 12-hour time shift away. The experience was remarkable, touring in a country with a history, social structure and landscape vastly different from our own. We were among the few Westerners in this park, though it is part of the Temple of Heaven, an important historical site that has at its center a 15th century walled complex.

As we found nearly everywhere in this nation of more than 1.3 billion people, most other tourists were Asian. We were in a distinct minority. Sometimes, people stared at us unselfconsciously, because (or so the guide books say), staring isn’t considered rude in China. Mostly, we were greeted warmly, or ignored.

Throughout this trip, we avoided large tour groups. Generally, we went sightseeing either with a private guide or, more often, on our own carrying maps and books. We took taxis and subways and used a local train (about $4) for a 45-minute ride from Shanghai to the resort town of Suzhou, which has an I.M. Pei-designed museum, ancient gardens and canals with gondolas. We rarely got lost and always felt safe. Street and subway signs include English. imageApps for the iPhone translated our destinations in Shanghai and Beijing into Chinese so we could show taxi drivers where we wanted to go. Hotels also provide taxi cards. I booked everything online, including our internal flights on Chinese airlines—which make announcements in English.

On our first full day in China, we came upon one of our friendliest encounters, when a couple invited us into their kitchen in Shanghai. I had arranged the trip to start in Shanghai, because my parents lived there from 1939 to 1947. They were among about 20,000 European Jewish refugees who fled to the international city to escape Hitler’s regime because it didn’t require visas. I found many of the places my parents frequented, though often the original buildings were replaced by modern ones. The quest for the newer, taller and shinier seems part of the soul of Shanghai, which these days is a center of commerce and entrepreneurship.

I also came to China as an eager tourist. I wanted to see the famous Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. I wanted to explore the Great Wall near Beijing. And I wanted to learn more about this “sleeping giant” of a nation (as Napoleon famously said) since it’s so often in the news these days, a waking giant flexing its economic muscles, shipping its manufactured goods everywhere, making governmental decisions that sometimes seem repressive, and sending students and teachers to America. Anticipating my visit, I’d tried learning Mandarin in evening classes at Stony Brook University—but found the language exceedingly difficult. About all I could manage during my trip was “ni hao,” or hello, and “xie xie,” thank you.

imageWe hired a private guide to help us get our bearings on our first day. We started at the Jin Jiang Hotel, where we were staying, a historic complex in the Luwan District, called the French Concession before World War II. When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, he met here with leaders of the People’s Republic and signed the agreement known as the Shanghai Communiqué.

As we walked along a tree-lined residential street, we came eye to eye with a man and woman who were cooking lunch on their stove at a window facing the street. They smiled. We smiled. Our guide greeted them in Chinese, and they invited us in. As we entered the dark hallway, we saw three sets of meters for electricity, gas and water. The building had three sets of tenants, they explained, and each paid only for what they used, even the hallway light. That’s common in China, we learned. In poorer areas, we discovered, people rarely turn on lights because they can’t afford to. Cell phones, however, are cheap, and nearly everyone has one.

This friendly young couple seemed slightly affluent, though their lunch looked meager. They were frying chicken wings, which the woman called “cooking American.” She meant it jokingly, our guide explained, as a reference to Kentucky Fried Chicken, the most popular fast food chain in China. Later, we came across legions of red KFC bicycles ready to deliver take-out, many KFC stores and a few Chinese knock-offs of the Colonel.

It turned out that the wife was born in the area of Shanghai now called Hongkou where my parents and many other refugees lived. I was born there, too, though we left for America when I was three months old. My new acquaintances welcomed me warmly back to my hometown.

Later, we turned into a lane, a pedestrian alley snaking behind buildings that face the street. There are lanes all over Shanghai, each a community of two- or three-story apartment buildings where people live very close to each other. The entrances often have gates, but it’s okay to enter. People often sit or stand outside talking. Clothes hang out of windows or are suspended over small balconies—as they are street side, too—airing out or perhaps being stored, since apartments tend to be tiny. That helps explain why so many citizens find their recreation in parks—though no doubt people who live in spacious quarters enjoy the social aspects, too.

Like Beijing, Shanghai has its share of green spaces. In a pocket-sized park that we visited in Hongkou, as part of a tour of formerly Jewish areas given by an Israeli named Dvir Bar-Gal (a tour I recommend even for non-Jews,, we saw people chatting, playing cards and practicing t’ai chi. Mothers proudly paraded their beautifully dressed only child, often with grandparents along. China’s one-child policy is strict (with exemptions, including allowing wealthy people to pay to have more children), and many families dote on their single offspring.

I didn’t spend all my time exploring obscure byways. We also strolled along the Bund, a famous mile-long waterfront area of wharves, walkways and historic buildings, including several grand Art Deco bank buildings and the newly restored Peace Hotel, now the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Noël Coward wrote Private Lives there. Closed since 2007, it was about to reopen when I visited in May.

The long construction time was unusual by Shanghai standards, where many projects seem to pop up overnight. We had brunch one day at M on the Bund, where we watched a scaffold go up. The next morning, a solid wall of live flowers bloomed there. imageThe restaurant is one of several with views across the Huangpu River (where we later took a cruise) to Pudong, a newer financial and residential section of the city with a futuristic skyline that is slated to boast a Disney theme park in 2014. Shanghai is still international and growing fast, with what is now the world’s largest subway system. We were told that its residents like to say that Beijing looks backward while Shanghai looks forward. I don’t think Beijing residents agree.

Shanghai’s main shopping street, Nanjing Road, starts at the Bund and heads west through People’s Square, getting more upscale as it goes along. I bought a very touristy set of chopsticks within the first few blocks, where my husband was often accosted by men flashing photos of expensive watches and motioning to follow them. There must have been a crackdown on selling such items. We were there during the Expo, or world’s fair, and the government was trying to clean up the city for visitors. But, as we found, Chinese people can be inventive about bending the rules.

We read that sales of illegal DVDs had also been banned—only to be moved to back rooms, where customers were routinely ushered. Another ban prohibited the public wearing of pajamas, apparently a favorite mode of dress for some residents. We saw very few, but one middle-aged woman proudly marched in her silk embroidered pjs, smiling slyly. On the other hand, we never heard anyone say anything anti-government.

The Shanghai Museum, with gorgeous bronzes, ceramics and paintings, and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, with vast scale models of the city, are among the sights in People’s Square. Less well known: The Grand Cinema, across Nanjing Road from the square, is a recently restored Art Deco movie palace with a roof garden café and an informal museum of old movie posters, including classic American films shown there from 1928 on. We were alone as we walked through the area, which runs around the theater’s perimeter and is accessible through doors on either side of the main entrance. Film buffs will love it.

We left Shanghai for Xi’an, a walled city that was once the eastern terminus of the Silk Road but is now better known as the home of the Terracotta Army. The over-life-size horses, chariots and warriors, each with a different face, were discovered in 1974 by farmers, a few of whom now sell their books and pose for photos (for a fee) at the site; commerce is celebrated everywhere in China. The excavation is outside the city, so we hired a private car and guide through our hotel. Our enthusiastic guide took us to other fascinating sites and museums as well, but the highlight really was the awe-inspiring rows of warriors, uncovered inside their pits but still in formation, protected now under a huge hangar-like structure. Most of the 8,000 figures—which an emperor planned to take with him into the next world—haven’t been excavated, because they lose their color once they hit air. Scientists are experimenting with ways to preserve the paint.

Having a guide here was invaluable. Like many service people in China, she did not expect a tip. When we added extra money to her fee, she thought it was a mistake and tried to return it.

We noted on our drive through the countryside that huge clouds of black smoke billowed from factories—the pollution around Xi’an was worse than in Shanghai or Beijing. In the cities, some cyclists wear masks, but few pedestrians do. The smog never became a real problem for us, but it’s there. We noticed it more acutely by its absence when we returned to the US. The air in Newark felt clean and fresh.
Our first stop in Beijing was the Forbidden City, a huge walled complex in the heart of modern downtown Beijing that for 500 years served as home to 24 emperors. It’s across from Tiananmen Square on one end, with entrances on both sides. Its temples and other buildings are impressive, but the crowds were enormous, and the audio guide we rented was confusing: We were never sure we were looking at the right building. We probably should have hired a human guide or stuck to our guidebook. It started to pour as we were almost through and, just as in Times Square, umbrella salesmen materialized out of nowhere.

Visiting the Great Wall, which requires an entire day, was on our agenda next. Through a Chinese-speaking British friend (whom we met through family connections), we hired a taxi driver for the day. She negotiated a good price of 550 Chinese Yuan Renminbi (CNY), or about $83. The very nice but non-English-speaking driver drove us to Mutianyu, an area 45 miles away from Beijing that isn’t as crowded with visitors or souvenir hawkers as Badaling, where most tour buses go. Other spots are less developed and even less crowded, but we weren’t up for scrambling among broken rocks. Mutianyu was just right. We took a cable car (more like a ski lift) going up and could have hiked to another one in the distance. It was too far, though, so we turned back after a few enjoyable hours—and hundreds of stone steps going up and down inside the wall, punctuated by towers and ramparts that afforded even more breath-taking views of verdant mountains and the long snaking wall. Our return options: Speed down the steep hill on a toboggan (supposedly safe but, sorry, no way) or hop back on the lift, which suddenly looked less scary than on the way up.

Our driver was waiting for us in a parking lot below and, as we had been advised, we suggested stopping for a meal at one of the fish restaurants on the road back. It’s amazing how much hand gestures can convey. He pulled into a plain looking restaurant along the local river (which we figured he’d arranged while we up on the wall, perhaps with a kick-back to him).

imageWe were the only customers this late afternoon. We selected two large trout from a tank in the shaded courtyard where we also ate. The proprietors caught the fish in a net and took them to a barbecue area down some steps. They handed us menus with photographs—a common way of handling the language barrier—and we selected a few dishes. It was the most delicious meal we had in China. The bill for three people, including two beers (the driver declined), came to $30.

Another must-see sight slightly outside Beijing’s center is the Summer Palace, a sprawling complex of lakes, gardens and temples built by the Empress Dowager Cixi, an imperial concubine who seized power and spent lavishly on her amusements. Among her favorite spots was the three-story Garden of Virtue and Harmony, Cixi’s private theater where a 348-member opera troupe performed for her. Expect lots of climbing and marveling at lovely names, like the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, atop Longevity Hill. At the suggestion of a journalist in Beijing, we topped off our trip with afternoon tea, Chinese-British style, at the Aman resort (phone 1-800-990-9990) near the palace entrance. We loved our hotel, the Regent Beijing, but here we glimpsed how really wealthy visitors can choose to live.

When it came to shopping, we stuck to un-luxury spots (like Beijing’s bustling Panjiayuan Flea Market, a short cab ride from the Temple of Heaven) and learned to bargain. Or so we thought. One of my husband’s prize purchases is a black baseball cap with “Great Wall” and Chinese lettering on it in red. We were walking near our home on Long Island recently when a man pointed to the hat and said, “I have one just like it.” My husband responded, “I paid $2 for it.” The man replied, “I paid 50 cents.” But that was many years ago, he added. So either China has seen inflation in the price of hats, or we are terrible bargainers.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.