In 2010, a friend and I took a 17-day Tauck tour of China as a way to celebrate handing in my PhD. Traveling to China was my friend’s idea, but I suggested that we go with Tauck. I knew it would be challenging to visit China on our own and I was confident that Tauck would be a good fit for both of us. China was a country where I wanted to rely on my affection for group travel, over planning my own adventure. I had traveled with Tauck before and knew that we would get an in-depth cultural experience while also enjoying the luxurious side of travel.
This was the first trip abroad for which I had to apply for a visa. I was living in London at the time and the process included visiting the Chinese consulate to hand in my paperwork and passport. I did plenty of research before beginning this process, and because of that, it was fairly straightforward and my passport with Chinese visa was returned to me in a timely manner.
I arrived in China a day early in order to recover from the 10-hour flight and help adjust to the 8-hour time difference between Beijing and London. Returning Tauck guests are currently offered a free night’s hotel stay either at the beginning or end of their tour, so I happily took them up on it the night before my tour officially began. I met up with my friend for dinner that night and learned my first lesson about life in Beijing; that traffic does not stop for pedestrians, even in the crosswalk! Later our guide would tell us that the ‘car always goes first’…definitely a handy tip.
Our tour officially started the next night with our welcome dinner. This introduction to China consisted of a 7-course meal of local specialties, including Peking duck ceremoniously presented to us before carving. The welcome dinner allowed us to meet our Tour Director, for our group to get to know one another, and ease us in to our very active itinerary. Day 2 began with a visit to the Forbidden City, a 78-acre imperial palace for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. We entered through the North Gate and began our tour of this colorful and vibrant palace which was built and decorated to signify the power and un-approachableness of the emperor. The palace is formed by a series of halls and buildings separated by passages to create what feels like a small city. Some highlights included the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Gate of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle Harmony, Hall of Preserved Harmony, Hall of Mental Preservation, and the Imperial Garden. We then exited into Tiananmen Square via the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Tiananmen Square is the location of the Chinese Parliament, the place where Chairman Mao is interred, and the supposed ‘soul of China’. The square acts as a park where people walk and children play, but it is also heavily guarded due to its history as a gathering place. It was here that our guide explained that Beijing is not just a tourist destination for foreigners, but also a popular destination for domestic travel. This is why the Chinese tourists sometimes asked us to be in pictures with them; my fair-skin and blonde hair was a novelty, something new to behold just like Tiananmen Square itself. In the afternoon we took a Trishaw ride through the Houhai Hutong and visited the courtyard style home of the Hu family. Hutongs are a series of traditional four-walled courtyards, which for centuries were the standard housing units in the capital. Entering the private home of a Hutong resident gave us insight into the way some people still cling to a traditional way of life in an ever-changing and ever-expanding metropolis.
The following day we visited the Great Wall at Badaling. This is the portion of the Wall that was restored during the Ming Dynasty and snakes dramatically over the land punctuated by watchtowers and gates. In its entirety the wall spans over 4,000 miles from the sea in the East to the Gobi Desert of Gansu. This particular section has been heavily restored for tourism and is often quite crowded. While it has been redesigned to accommodate tourists, it’s still very steep in points and requires a lot of climbing (so bring good shoes, and a hat if you are there in the late fall or winter). After visiting the Great Wall, we made our way to the Summer Palace with buildings dating back from the Qing Dynasty. The Summer Palace is an encampment of temples, pavilions and halls set in a park around Lake Kunming. Some highlights to see here include the Seventeen Arched Bridge, the marble boat, and the long corridor.
On day 4 we first visited the Temple of Heaven, which is a diagram of Chinese cosmology representing the intersection of Heaven and Earth. We then spent the rest of the morning in the adjacent park where we learned to play Tai Chi Ball with some locals. Throughout the park I observed people of all ages exercising, playing games and socializing. The Chinese believe it is important to remain mentally and physically active throughout life, and this lifestyle choice is reflected in the wide use of public spaces such as this park. That afternoon we visited the Olympic Village where we toured the complex and went inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube. I have studied sport for most of my adult life, so visiting the Olympic complex after spending time in a local park really interested me because I believe sport (and leisure activity in general) is a great reflection of local and national culture. We were given that evening free to explore our own interests in Beijing, so my friend and I chose to visit the Hong Qiao Pearl Market. I knew that haggling was a part of shopping in China and I had my first chance to test my negotiation skills here. I found a beautiful strand of pearls that I was determined to get down to about half the listed price. After about an hour of negotiating, I finally bought the pearls at the price I wanted. The whole experience was definitely frustrating at times, but also very rewarding.
On day 5 we left Beijing and flew to Xi’an. The affluent Silk Road began here and Xi’an became an intersection of multiple religious activities for those who traveled this ancient route. That influence can still be seen here today. Our first stop was at the Big Wild Goose Pavilion, built in 648 A.D. by Emperor Gao Zong in honor of his mother, Empress Wende. At one point it was managed by Xuan Zang, a famous Buddhist emissary who stored hundreds of scriptures from India here. We then walked along a section of the 9-mile long Xi’an city wall, built during the Ming Dynasty. On day 6 we visited the Terra Cotta Warriors where 8,000 individualized, life-size terra cotta statues of soldiers have stood guard at the underground tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, for 2,000 years. The site was discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well and was opened to the public in 1980. The soldiers reside in three pits and originally were covered by a wooden roof and a layer of earth. All of the clay soldiers were equipped with bronze weapons, were vividly painted, and each had a unique facial expression. Visiting the terra cotta soldiers is a truly awe-inspiring experience that reveals great artistry and the strength of ancient imperial power.
Day 7 was my favorite day of the trip. We flew to Guilin for a cruise along the Li River. Guilin is one of China’s most picturesque places filled with tranquil groves, fishermen on rafts, breathtaking karst limestone peaks, and traditional villages. The three-hour cruise was a spectacular way to take in some of the natural beauty of China. I also had a chance to sample some ‘snake wine’ while on board; this concoction consisted of alcohol that had dead snakes fermenting in the bottom of the jar…yum (ok not really, but what’s a trip to China without eating or drinking something bizarre…).
The following morning we flew to Yichang and boarded the Yangzi Explorer for our three-night cruise through the Three Gorges along the Yangtze River. The Yangzi is China’s longest river and its basin creates a highly fertile, yet dangerous valley. The area is prone to terrible floods, which prompted construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydropower plant in the world. While the dam aims to reduce the flooding in this area, its construction was controversial because it displaced millions of people who were forced to relocate. After a tour of the dam, our boat made its way up through a series of intricate locks, reinforcing the engineering feat that was accomplished here to create the dam. After making it past the locks, we began to pass through our first gorge, the Xiling Gorge. On the second day of our cruise, we had a shore excursion along the river in a traditional sampan boat. At one point, local men showed us how they used to drag the boats by hand along the coastline. Over the next couple of days we passed through two further gorges, the Wu Gorge and the Qutang Gorge. Our final day on the Yangzi River was spent onboard the boat where we had a chance to relax, listen to lectures, shop, enjoy delicious food, and even participate in some late-night karaoke. Using multiple modes of transport always appeals to me while on tour because I like experiencing a country from multiple perspectives. It’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to Tauck; their tours maintain a good balance between the expectations of luxury on my tourist side, and the desire to independently discover on my traveler side.
We disembarked the Yangtze Explorer on day 11 in Chongqing and flew to Shanghai. Shanghai is a sparkling example of modern-day China and an enticing engagement between East and West. To make our way into the city that afternoon we took the magnetic levitation train which travels at over 300 km/hr. In Shanghai we stayed at the newly opened Peninsula Hotel which had fabulous views along The Bund; it was one of the most spectacular hotels I have had the pleasure to stay in. The Bund lines the Huangpu River and was the financial motor behind Shanghai’s success and Europe’s corporate perch in China. Today it still reflects Shanghai’s importance as a financial center. On day 12 we visited the Old Chinese City with its labyrinthine Yu Gardens and Yuyuan Bazaar filled with souvenir and antique shops. With our free afternoon I chose to first visit the Pearl TV Tower, which has a 263-meter high viewing platform made of glass. I then did some shopping before meeting up with a friend for dinner. I finally rejoined the group for an evening acrobatic performance which left us all thoroughly entertained and amazed. We spent our last day in Shanghai with a visit to the urban planning center and the Shanghai Museum, which houses a magnificent collection of Chinese art and architecture. That evening we had dinner at Sir Elly’s in the hotel, before the younger members of the group ventured out to explore the Shanghai nightlife.
We left Shanghai on day 14 and flew to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is an ex-British colony which was returned to China in 1997 and retains a stimulating contrast between its Chinese and English cultures. Today, Hong Kong and China operate on a ‘one country, two systems’ policy which means Hong Kong retains its own laws, tax systems, budget and freedom in all areas except defense and foreign policy. We had our first afternoon and evening in Hong Kong free to explore the city, which I used to finish my shopping and visit the Temple Street Night Market. The following day we took a funicular ride up to Victoria Peak. Victoria Peak is home to the most exclusive residential area in Hong Kong and offers breathtaking expansive views of the island. Once we returned to Victoria Harbor we took a Sampan ride to see the island from an alternative point of view. The rest of the day was spent enjoying the beautiful promenade and saying goodbye to my new friends at our farewell dinner.
My flight didn’t leave until 11pm on day 16, so four of us decided to take a trip to Macau, the ‘Las Vegas of the East’. There is a ferry that connects Hong Kong and Macau which allowed us to easily travel between the two islands. Macau has an interesting blend of new architecture and casinos juxtaposed against a Portuguese Old Town left from the island’s time as a part of Europe’s trade routes. Macau was returned to China in 1999 and has a similar political agreement with the mainland as its neighbor Hong Kong. We spent part of our day exploring the Portuguese Old Town and the other part enjoying the glitzy casinos.
After more than two weeks in China, I felt as though I only scratched the surface of this complicated and diverse country. Its history is vast and its culture is unlike any I had experienced before. China tends to have a negative image in the West, but its people are kind, its cities are vibrant, and its countryside is beautiful. Through this trip I gained a wealth of knowledge about China and its people, and gained a better appreciation for a culture very different from my own. This was my first trip to Asia, and it definitely won’t be my last.