CHINA – The name alone evokes a myriad of emotions and images; the worlds largest population, communism, take out food, Chairman Mao, tai chi, the Great Wall, and tea. The country is all this and more. The enormity of the country is as intimidating as it’s history and we feel the three weeks we spent there in 2000 barely scratched the surface of this fascinating culture.
Grand China and the Yangtze was our third tour with my company, Grand European Tours, and our first experience traveling to the world of eastern medicine, culture and food. Summing up the overwhelming experience that is China is a difficult challenge. Rich in history and culture, China as a country also faces great challenges of it’s own. The immense population has created some of the worst traffic and pollution we’ve experienced, before or since.
Back in 2000, tourism was still fairly new to the country and we had “escorts” with us constantly. The language barrier was very real in a place where even the letters & symbols were indecipherable to our western eye. Although the majority of visitors these days to China are still tourist groups, independent travel has become quite acceptable as well and for our next trip we’d love to go back and explore the country at our own pace. The wall of communism still exists but rather than a heavy drape it’s become a sheer curtain.
Our tour to this ancient land covered a lot of miles, a lot of centuries, and a lot of interesting food so this may be a lengthy post! Make yourself comfortable, grab your beverage of choice, and prepare to immerse yourself in CHINA!
We began in Beijing, the expansive capital of the country. With a population of around 17 million and covering over 6487 square miles, getting anywhere within the city is a time consuming proposition. Although jet-lagged, we eagerly soaked in the sights around us as we drove to our hotel; Chinese wearing the traditional conical hats on bicycles everywhere, grey skies filled with smog surrounded square communist style architecture, and parks filled with tai chi practicing locals abounded. We were instantly impressed with how “tidy” everything was. Throughout the city streets we never once saw garbage or trash lying about and the ever-industrious Chinese were busy all around us sweeping sidewalks and even clipping the grass of golf courses by hand.
One could easily spend a great deal of time exploring the treasure of this city, but we had too few precious days so needed to hit the highlights. We started where most do, at the Forbidden City. This sprawling city within a city, covers over 100 square miles and is fronted by the grand Tiananmen Square. The vibrant red and gold buildings stand out dramatically against the dreary background of modern day Beijing. The Forbidden City was PACKED with people for a once a decade celebration that drew villagers from near and far into the city for the celebration, making things even more crowded than normal. Most of these villagers had never seen Westerners before and so began our time of being faux-celebrities…… What started as simple staring progressed into more as some of the Chinese began to follow our group throughout the site, trying to frame their pictures so we were in the background. Next thing you know, one brave soul asked if we would be in a photo with their family and that was it….the rest of our time in the Forbidden City was spent trying to see the sights of the city in between posing with dozens of Chinese for their vacation photos! We had a fantastic time with them and would love to know how many of these pictures are displayed in their homes.
The balance of our days in Beijing covered all of the highlights; We visited the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, working our way amidst the crush of humanity. We experienced our first foot massage and became addicted! We had a traditional and delicious Peking Duck dinner at Quanjude Restaurant, in business since 1864 and selling over 4 millions ducks each year and, of course, toured the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall is amazing, one of those wonders of the world that actually lives up to it’s reputation. Much of the 5000 mile wall was built in the years around 200-206 BC, but it’s been built and rebuilt many times. Standing on the wall and looking at it weave it’s way up and down the undulating hillside is truly magical.
Having stood in Tiananmen Square and on the Great wall and eaten Peking Duck, I still have to say my favorite experience of our time in Beijing was our Hutong tour.
Hutong is the name for the many neighborhoods of Beijing attached by tiny roads and alleys with inner courtyards where most locals call home. As always, these off the beaten track type of experiences are our favorites, even if this time it was part of an organized group. We were taken by pedicab around and through thriving local neighborhoods, seeing how the locals lived and worked, before having lunch at the home of a former opera singer. A remarkable and worthy experience. Sadly, in recent years many hutongs have been destroyed due to construction of larger homes and expanded roadways, but the good news is that many are also now being culturally preserved as to protect them from further destruction.
From Beijing we flew to Xi’an, capital of the Shaanxi province, with a population of a mere 7.5 million in their metro area. Xi’an is best known for the Terra Cotta warriors, discovered by a local farmer in 1974. There are over 8000 figures featuring soldiers, horses and chariots dating from around the 3rd century BC. Most are still buried in Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum but even the small portion on display in the museum are breathtaking. The quality of the carvings is extraordinary and no two have the exact same facial features, making them appear nearly lifelike.
Our time in Xi’an was short but, in addition, to the warriors we also enjoyed visiting a jade museum. checked out the Big Wild Goose pavilion and took in a Tang Dynasty show and dinner and, in spite of the overwhelming pollution and smoke from the field burning in the area, enjoyed a walk on the great city walls.
Chongquing was our next stop and after a visit to the local zoo to see the Giant Panda’s we had lunch at the type of restaurant which is common in China and other parts of the world but was a new experience for us; a restaurant where all of the animals on the menu are alive and well in cages in front so you can pick the one you want and be assured of fresh meat! Cat, dog, rabbit, frog, snake, chicken… the list goes on, all yours for the picking! Luckily for us, lunch had been pre-ordered so we didn’t have to choose from the catch of the day.
Yet another highlight of this trip was the 4-day cruise along the Yangtze, one of the great rivers of the world. When we traveled this route we sailed on Victoria Cruises which was very nice, however, my company now uses our sister company, Uniworld Cruises to operate this entire tour and I must say their ships looks amazing! Fengdu was our first shore excursion and what a treat it was. With over 700 temples containing statues of ghosts and devils, it’s easy to see why it acquired the nickname “Ghost City’.
Sailing through the Qutang Gorge was dramatic with sheer cliffs lining either side of the river along with dozens of cliff-side villages. Wushan is the gateway to the Three Lessor Gorges, taken as a shore excursion from the Yangtze boats. While the Yangtze is quite brown in color and industrial in many place, the Three Lessor Gorges are much more pristine with green lined banks and sweeping views.
Once you have reached the Xiling Gorge, the longest gorge on the river, you know you’ve almost reached the Three Gorges Dam, the largest engineering project in the world. It was still being worked on as we sailed through the area in 2000 and has since been completed in 2009, taking 17 years to finish. It was a project of great controversy for, although it now supplies an enormous amount of power and energy for the country, the building of the dam displaced 1.2 million people and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages. Touted as a miracle during the construction it is already proving to be detrimental to the environment and is causing landslides and shore erosion to an alarming degree. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this notorious project. Our cruise sailed on to Wuhan before disembarking, intrigued by all we’d seen of life along the river.
The last part of our time in China proved to be our favorite. Throughout our time in the country we’d stepped back thousands of years in history, been incredibly impressed with the friendliness and work ethic of the local people, marveled at the gorgeous architecture and artifacts, and eaten some really great food. But the China I dreamed of was the China along the Li River near the town of Guilin. Jagged limestone cliffs line the shores of the peaceful river. Men crouched on bamboo rafts fished with their birds, and beautiful flowers bloomed. We floated the river and visited the Reed Flute Caves to view the gorgeous, distinctly colored stalagmites and stalactites.
Then we made a mistake – we tried snake wine, something I would NEVER recommend anyone else do. Snake is considered an important aphrodisiac in China and we’d been served our fair share of it, but we were intrigued by the bottle of liqueur with a dead snake inside. All of you who know our penchant for taking shots know we wouldn’t pass up this opportunity. In this case, boy did we wish we had! The taste is horrific and nearly indescribable. First your tongue goes numb right before you start choking as it hits your throat. We’re not sure what the process of making fermented snake bile into liqueur entails but I do know that every single thing we ate for days afterwards tasted of it…truly horrible!
Our tour ended in Hong Kong, a vibrant, exciting city. After nearly three weeks of life in China, Hong Kong was a shock to our system. The China we saw was like taking a step back in time; no fast food, a mostly rural lifestyle, locals on bikes, little advertising. Hong Kong is the antithesis of mainland China. Skyscapers everywhere, neon flashing, the newest gadget in every teenagers hand. We rode the Star Ferries, ate noodles on the street corners and did some great shopping, feeling barely able to breath amongst the hustle and bustle of big city life.
China is a place I’d like to return to. With the more relaxed view of tourism and a new openness with the western world, the country has a lot to offer the visitor. World class sites, food and culture all combine to make for a truly intriguing destination. The newly updated China & Yangtze tour offered by Grand European Tours features a stop in Shanghai, a city we didn’t get a chance to visit, but widely touted as an amazing place with the best steamed pork buns anywhere, one of my weaknesses! We’ll definitely make it there the next time we pass through.
Overall, the biggest impression we came away with was of the fortitude and strength of the Chinese people. In spite of a domineering government and a difficult day to day life, the average citizen on the street is friendly and generous and we’re very much looking forward to going back one day, backpacking the small towns and villages and really immersing ourselves in the culture. China is a big deal… economically, politically, and literally. Do yourself a favor and check it out for yourself.