There’s a reason we’re calling this 13-day excursion a classic.
China, of course, is far, far, far too tremendously large and varied to be explored in full during any one trip. But it is possible to hit a good number of its most famous highlights—world-class attractions that have been enticing travelers for quite a long time. And that’s just what we propose to do with our October Classic China tour.
Consider it a bit of a greatest hits package, if you like. More to the point, though, it’s a chance to see some of China’s most impressive historical, cultural and natural highlights while balancing the wonders of its past with the economic marvels of its present. Modern-day China is growing and redeveloping at an almost unprecedented rate, so it’s not a bad idea to see as much of its past as possible—since some fear much may be swept away by the new.
We’ll have a chance to do just that during the first few days of our journey, in and around Beijing. After cocktails and a welcome dinner in our hotel, we’ll head directly to Tiananmen Square the next morning. Envisioned by Chairman Mao as the world’s largest central city square (with standing room for 500,000), Tiananmen certainly impresses with its sheer size. Though, of course, it’s impossible not to remember the hundreds who were killed there by government troops in 1989 during student protests.
Fortunately, that grim memory can be left behind in the 20th century after a walk through the South Gate of the square and into the Forbidden City—once the world’s most exclusive
piece of real estate. Also the world’s largest palace complex, roughly the size of 80 football fields, it was built in the 1400s and served for 500 years as the home of 24 Chinese emperors and their families. And it came by its name honestly—commoners were very strictly not allowed. Which is a shame because they might have enjoyed dazzlers such as The Temple of Supreme Harmony, one of the world’s biggest and most beautiful wooden buildings.
During that very busy first day’s sightseeing, we’ll also enjoy a rickshaw ride and take time to explore Beijing’s many Hutongs, narrow streets or alleys formed by lines of courtyard residences. And for those who have the inclination—and the energy—an optional Chinese Acrobatic Show has been planned for that evening.
The following day, we’ll drive just outside of Beijing to the Temple of Heaven, built around the same time as the Forbidden City, where China’s emperors traveled annually to pray for good harvests. Then we’ll move on for a look at one of mankind’s greatest achievements (and greatest tourist attractions), China’s 4,000-mile-long Great Wall. We’ll be exploring the Mutianyu, the only fully restored section of the Great Wall, complete with examples of its fortifications and watchtowers.
Our third day in Beijing will begin with more modern accomplishments, namely a morning tour of The Birds Nest and the Water Cube (now the National Stadium and National Aquatics Center), both constructed for the 2008 Olympics—considered at the time a showcase for the new China. Then, after lunch, we’ll step back a few centuries for a visit to the Summer Palace, a rustic getaway for China’s emperors. Actually a rather large complex of lakes, gardens and palaces, it is justifiably admired worldwide for its landscape design, most luxuriously viewed from the Dragon Boats that crisscross KunMing Lake. And we’ll finish our time tripping that evening with a visit to Beijing’s ultra-trendy shopping Mall The Place, featuring Asia’s largest sky screen—a giant LCD TV—overhead.
Next morning, we fly to Xi’an. Beijing has been China’s capital for the past thousand years, but Xi’an had the honors as far back as 200 BC, when China was unified for the first time by Emperor Qin Shi Huang. And it retains much of the character of its extremely venerable past. After arriving in late afternoon, you’ll have the opportunity to walk or bicycle on the city wall and take in the ancient sights, such as the 14th-century Bell Tower in Xi’an’s precise geographical center, and its counterpart The Drum Tower, also built in the 14th century, on a rise that provides a dramatic view of the city.
Of course, the main reason tourists make the trip to Xi’an these days is to see the world-famous Terra Cotta Warriors, emperor Huang’s private army of 8,000 life-sized, fully armed replica soldiers, intended to serve him in the afterlife—accidentally discovered in 1974 while someone was digging a well. Afterwards, we’ll visit a terra-cotta-making factory specializing in models of the warriors, then the Shaanxi History Museum and the 7th-century, five-story Buddhist Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The day ends that evening with a Tang Dynasty Dancing Show, demonstrating that the Tangs, at the very least, knew how to have a good time.
The next few days will be spent in the scenic area surrounding the city of Guilin. The area could be described as a national park devoted to the Li River, which runs 50 miles between Guilin and the city of Yangshuo—and that would certainly be factually true. However, there is much more to the region than that. Basically an enormous, flat plain set off with lovely karst limestone hills and caves and enchanting rivers, the area has been listed as one of the world’s Top 10 Watery Wonders by National Geographic magazine, in addition to serving for centuries as an inspiration to poets and painters.
We’ll begin by visiting must-sees such as the Elephant Trunk Hill (a tourist destination since the Tang Dynasty, featuring temples, pagodas and a limestone hill that looks like an elephant drinking from a the Li River), the 180-million-year-old natural limestone Reed Flute Cave, and Two Rivers and Four Lakes—a scenic landscape surrounding Guilin, with history going back to the Tang and Song Dynasties. Then, the next day, we’ll take a leisurely boat trip down the Li to Yangshuo, for a walking tour of the cobblestoned town, followed by an evening performance of “The Impressions of Liusanjie,” featuring a cast of hundreds. The spectacular production was created by celebrated film director Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”), who also directed the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
After a night in Yangshuo, we’ll take a bamboo-raft excursion on the Yu Long River before returning to the city for a trip to Shangri-la, a nature park built on a small island in a lake. Then we’re off to Shanghai, the final major stop on our journey.
Shanghai is considerably more westernized than Beijing, due to its position in the 1930s as the chief shipping and trading headquarters of the colonial powers. After that head start, Shanghai now epitomizes modern China, with its emphasis on new construction in an eclectic variety of architectural styles. Though the strongest impression is of European skyscraper chic, best illustrated by the its neon-lit riverfront skyline.
That’s not to say there are no historical riches in Shanghai, but to suggest that this is the place where the contrast between old and new China is most striking.
We’ll spend two days in the city, beginning with a visit to the Shanghai Museum, with its collection of historical and contemporary art. We’ll also take in the comparatively recent Jade Buddha Temple, established in 1882 and rebuilt in 1928, then step back a little further for a relaxing afternoon in the Yuyuan Garden. Initially constructed in 1577 during the Ming Dynasty, Yuyuan endured many changes in fortune before being restored in the 1950s to a five-acre classical garden with six scenic areas—and a tranquil, very old-school China change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the city. Finally we’ll take a leisurely stroll along The Bund, featuring dozens of historical buildings such as banks and trading houses, which lined the Huangpu River in the early 20th century and now stand as reminders of the city’s colonial past.
Our final day will present one more opportunity to take in highlights such as the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (1,535-feet tall with a revolving restaurant at the top offering dramatic views of the city) and the Shanghai City-Planning Museum. Then we’ll meet at the Bund wharf for a cruise of the Huangpo for a farewell dinner and a last lingering look at the symbols of the old and the new that seem to have voluntarily chosen opposing banks of the river.
Old Shanghai, it seems, is content to stay where it is. But new Shanghai is restless.