From the beginning of the Darden Executive MBA experience, I always had September 2016 marked on my calendar as what I imagined would be the highlight of my MBA experience — our week-long global residency in China. Our class of over 60 students met in Beijing on Saturday September 3rd and conducted morning class sessions with the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) with a few afternoon business site visits and historical excursions.

Normally I’m a bit obsessive about researching a place before I travel. The combination of a rough summer with moving and classwork, I never really had a chance to prepare. I think I landed in Beijing without having any real expectations.

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And my first impression was that Beijing was pretty massive. We were very fortunate as we were traveling to the country the same time period as President Obama and the other G20 world leaders… I say that because China closed factories and limited vehicle use to reduce pollution levels. Right off the bat, I was expecting a lot more smog and much less blue sky.

img_0294Our first full day in Beijing was a morning introduction to CKGSB and a welcome address followed by an afternoon tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Our tour guide did an amazing job talking about the history of China and Beijing during our three to four hour tour. If you plan to visit, be sure to reserve half a day and be prepared for large crowds. I think our guide said there were sometimes up to 50,000 visitors a day to the Forbidden City and there are over 15 million visitors annually. It’s much larger than I ever imagined as well.

A few of closed the evening out with a visit to the Beijing Opera and a nighttime pass of the Tiananmen Gate.

Day two was kind of spectacular. After a morning learning more about the growth of capitalism in China, we were carted away to NW Beijing–passing the Olympic Village along the way–for an afternoon of hiking the Great Wall of China and a formal, dusk dinner on the Wall. Hiking the Great Wall in no joke. For the most part, the inclines were all steps, but with varying heights (sometimes almost knee-high). The views from the top, however… breathtaking.

We departed Beijing on Wednesday via high speed train to Shanghai. My initial impression of Beijing is that it’s a city everyone should see at least once. I don’t necessarily feel a strong urge to visit again. It was much more social than I expected. We stayed very near the city center and I was very surprised at the number of high end stores. For instance, major name brand stores that you may find only one or two of in a large American city would have multiple storefronts within blocks of each other. Our hotel was adjacent to the famed Wangfujing Shopping Street with world class restaurants and shopping all within blocks, but also intermixed with traditional Chinese markets in the side alleys. We experienced some of the nightlife as well as some of us ventured out to a karaoke room one night and others found a few ex-pats at a nearby microbrewery. Overall the food was amazing but expensive, the markets all sold pretty much the same stuff so it was all a matter of how well you could negotiate the price, and the number of locals who could understand English was pretty low.

If you want to learn about Ancient China, base your travels from Beijing. If you want to have fun, do some great shopping, eat amazing food, and do business in China… go to Shanghai. Arriving in Shanghai and getting to our hotel, I felt I was in a completely different country. Shanghai is both old and modern, there is much more international feel to the city, and it lacked the stuffiness of Beijing.

In Shanghai we continued our lectures with CKGSB, visited a joint venture Hershey and Lotte chocolate factory, went to the famous Shanghai acrobatics show, and most importantly, bonded even further as classmates. Thursday night in Shanghai, most of us had recovered from jet lag and were attracted to the bright lights of the Bund. More than half us ended up on the rooftop bar of the Roosevelt Club where we depleted the bar’s Patron stock and wandered back to our hotel around 3am. Morning classes were torture to say the least. The pictures speak much more volume than words… final prognosis: I’d definitely return to Shanghai.

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