The trip in the spring of 2007 was special in many ways - enjoyable and educational. The places we visited over the 22-day period were so different from each other that it was like six different vacations. The common thread was the food. Although there were minor variations, it was like going out for Chinese every day. We traveled with the same 11 people and guide throughout the trip and developed special relationships with our fellow travelers. This was the third tour we’ve made with Grand Circle, and each one was outstanding.
We used just about every mode of transportation, including plane, train, boat, and bus. Somehow we didn’t ride in a bicycle-driven rickshaw, although there were plenty to be seen. All of our flights, including those across the Pacific, were on time.
The weather was nearly perfect in late April and early May. One thing we didn’t anticipate was that May 1st is a big holiday in the socialistic world. In China, most people have the week off and travel to friends and relatives and go to the very tourist attractions we visited. It was very crowded at the train station in Beijing and many of the sites we visited in Beijing and Xi’an.
Our overall impression was that China is very big with lots of people, prosperous, and friendly. In the cities, most people lived in high-rise apartments. In the countryside people lived in small villages and tended small, individually-owned, highly-terraced fields with rice, winter wheat, and vegetables. We never saw a tractor or other heavy farm implements. Instead, we saw water buffalo pulling plows.
School children liked to try out their English on us. They would giggle and say “hello” and “what’s your name”, and were delighted when we responded. Smog and traffic are problems in the big cities. An enormous effort is going into preparing for the 2008 Olympics.
Click on the light-blue links (i.e., paragraph headings) below to see some pictures.
Tiananmen Square was very large and we had to take a picture with Chairman Mao’s picture in front of the Mao Mausoleum. The Great Wall was impressive. Our guide took us to an un-restored section outside of Beijing, which had very few tourists. We were able to walk along a section. The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace were less visually interesting, but we learned a lot about their history. The restrooms were generally clean. There was one in the Forbidden City that was rated Four Stars!
We visited a cloisonné factory and got to try out the painstaking process of creating these beautiful objects. Carlene won a prize (cloisonné chop sticks) for the best coloring of a dish. They also took us to a silk carpet factory where we saw some beautiful pieces. Grand Circle, like many other tour companies, receives payback for taking tourists to such places. The factories hope for sales to rich Americans, but we didn’t indulge.
We got a taste of classical Chinese culture at the Peking Opera. The opera is not like the European operas we are familiar with. Instead, it features classical stories, colorful costumes, and weird music and singing. Acrobatics and martial arts are included.
We took an overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an. The sleeper compartments were very comfortable. The inner city is surrounded by an amazingly-preserved, 400-year-old wall. We walked along the top, which was 40 or 50 feet wide. However, the main attraction here was the excavation site of the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi – one of the great emperors in Chinese history. He was a unifier of China and a major architect of the Great Wall, and a mega manic beyond belief. He ordered an extravagant tomb built for himself containing everything he might need in the next world, including 6,000 life-sized sculptures of soldiers (Terra Cotta Warriors). Each soldier is unique and the likeness of an actual army member. The excavation site is enclosed by two huge buildings and only a small portion of the tomb has been explored.
We visited a Buddhist temple (one of many we saw on the tour) and the Wild Goose Pagoda, which contains Buddhist scriptures and art objects. One morning at the hotel, a grand master gave us Tie Chi lessons. Carlene caught on quickly.
Our tour guide, Susanna, lives in Xi’an and was able to take us to a few places most tourists don’t visit, including a Chinese traditional medicine pharmacy, which had on hand prescription ingredients such as dried herbs, snakes, scorpions, and various bugs. We also went to an Islamic street market, with many stands selling ethnic delicacies.
We stayed overnight with a family when visiting a new farming village. They had a very nice home, partially subsidized by the government. We also visited the old village they moved from 7 years ago. People still live in the old village, which is built with very poor quality materials. They hope to move, but, in spite of the government subsidy, it takes some resources to do so.
After dinner, we joined the dancing in the village square. I think the event was related to the May Day holiday.
The main attraction here was the Giant Panda Sanctuary, where the pandas roam around in a natural setting. They are as cute as can be, but they are among the laziest creatures on earth and would probably go extinct if it wasn’t for human intervention. They just lay around eat bamboo shoots. They even have to be encouraged to breed.
We flew from Chengdu to Lhasa on a Chinese airline Air Bus A330. The plane was new and the service was excellent. The view going over the snow-covered Himalayas contrasted markedly to the scene in Lhasa, which was a brown-colored high plateau (elevation 12,000 ft). The annual rainfall is only about two inches, but the sun shines brightly. A family we visited took advantage of this free solar energy by rigging up an antenna that focused the sun’s rays on a tea kettle to boil water.
Lhasa is underdeveloped compared with other Chinese cities. The population is strongly religious (Buddhist). The main feature of Lhasa is the Potala Palace - home of the Dali Lama, except that he is in political exile. We toured the Palace, a temple, and a monastery. All had many Buda statues – some with gold leaf and inlayed precious stones. There are no elevators at the Palace. We had to climb 300 steps. Outside the temple, people went through a prayer ritual, which contained two or three positions, included lying prostrate (the various positions can be seen in the photo). We were told that people repeated the prayer ritual sometimes a hundred times. People also walked around a two-block circle that included the temple, praying with beads and prayer wheels. An interesting scene at the monastery was the monks in a garden debating philosophical issues in a very loud and argumentative way (to download and view a Windows Media video, click here)
The domesticated yak is the source of meat and wool in Tibet. The wool is made into carpets and other objects and is quite coarse, but the meat was very tasty. Yak yogurt was not good.
We visited a family (mother, grandmother and daughter) that made a living sewing. There home was quite comfortable and contained a prayer/meditation room, which we were told is a typical part of the house. They had a solar-heated tea pot in their courtyard.
We stopped at the Di Ji orphanage, founded by a women with her own funds, that Grand Circle now helps to support. The children sang “You Are My Sunshine” for us, but probably had no idea of what they were singing. We were all touched by the kids, who also escorted us around their cramped compound.
We spent three days on a ship, sailing down the Yangtze from Chong Qing, through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam, to Wuhan. The river was clean, although brown with mud. Our cabin on the third deck with a balcony was comfortable – as good as any ocean cruise ship. We also took a smaller boat and a sampan to explore one of the tributaries.
The gorges were spectacular, especially on the tributary. The river and shores are dominated by the nearly-complete world’s largest dam (Three Gorges Dam, named after the three gorges in the area) - four times larger than the Hoover dam. Over a million people that lived along the river have been displaced by the rising water, which will ultimately rise to 175 meters above sea level – another 15 meters from its current level. There are signs along the banks designating the 175 meter mark, as you can see in the photos. Most people were moved to apartment buildings on higher ground. Actually, new cities were constructed and many people had to transition from rural to urban lifestyles. People who wanted to continue farming were moved to other locations across China. Overall, the land submerged included 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, and 47,000 acres of cultivated land. One of the pictures shows a bridge (bye bye bridge) that will have to come down because it’s below the 175 meter mark.
Our tour guide, Susanna, called us the Sticky Rice Family because we had to stick together at the crowded places we visited for fear of getting separated. On the last day of the cruise, the Sticky Rice Family sang a couple of songs (one in Chinese) at the evening entertainment hour (to download and view a Windows Media video, click here - it will take a couple of minutes on a high-speed line to download). The ship provided a nice show, with dancing in colorful costumes, each evening.
Hong Kong was a hot and humid place with lots of very tall buildings and a beautiful harbor. We cruised the harbor in a small boat, visited another temple and a street food market. Most of the time we were on our own, shopping and enjoying a well-manicured, beautiful park (Victoria Park) across from our hotel. I bought a fine quality wool tailor-made suit for $179 . They took my measurements one afternoon, and the suit was ready the next morning.
Public transportation and taxis were easily accessible. We rode the subway without difficulty. They discourage driving individual cars – gas is $7/gallon and the cost of parking is outrageous.