Plus the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors and the Yangtze River
The Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Tianamen Square and the Great Wall are a given in Beijing. But I have a penchant for those rare and even quirky places that make me feel less like a tourist and more like an adventurer. On my favorite China trip, I was safely cocooned with a preferred river cruise provider and all the luxury that entails. But it was as much a land tour as a river cruise and as I was willing (and able) to expend a lot of shoe leather and board a series of airplanes, I was richly rewarded.
The Forbidden City. My 11-day itinerary showcased a swagger of mind-boggling Chinese architecture. The “center of the universe” covers 180 acres with graceful wing-roofed palaces, pavilions and pagodas formerly inhabited by 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1911). The tour let us wander freely with an informative audio headset brimming with fascinating narration.
- Facts & figures: Yellow is the color of imperial dignity and red signifies happiness and auspicious events…the more sculpted figurines adorning the roofline, the more important is the building…the complex boasts 8,707 rooms; breaking the myth that there are 9,999.5…there are many other examples of the imperial number 9—note the huge red gates with 9 rows of gilded doornails containing 9 studs per row.
It may be a struggle to capture the grand scale of the Forbidden City on film, but you’re sure to catch the essence of the place; especially if you’re creative and patient! My favorite photograph is the one I took of a young stone-faced soldier standing guard before the billboard-sized portrait of Chairman Mao. Special Invite. After walking for hours, it was good to sit back in a rickshaw and let somebody else do the work. And I was hungry, so I looked forward to a traditional lunch of Chinese specialties served up in a local family home. Our hosts made us feel welcome and the conversation led to an illuminating cultural exchange. Then I headed to the Emperor Hotel and its rooftop bar (not on the itinerary). I had read that it offers the best views overlooking the Forbidden City and I wasn’t disappointed. I knew that the cocktails are made with the notoriously potent Chinese rice liquor baijiu, so I didn’t imbibe—a wise decision since there were many welcoming toasts at the night’s Peking Duck Dinner.
- Peking Duck is a wonder in itself. The whole duck is expertly sliced into 120 pieces and each piece must include the meat and the crispy skin. To eat it properly, pick up a slice of duck and dip it into soy paste and then lay it on top of the thin cake provided. Add cucumber and shallot and wrap it all into a bundle with a thin pancake….yummmmm!
The Great Wall. On my second morning in Beijing, I laced up my best walking shoes and grabbed my camera in anticipation of a thrilling Great Wall adventure. You can see the entire monumental structure from outer space (we, of course, were only privy to one relatively small but challenging section). Badaling is close to Beijing and is thus the most visited portion despite the elevation gain. On my reconnoiter, I imagine archers at the ready, soldiers lighting signal fires, massive war horses straining their leads and stern-faced warriors preparing to mount. I climb on and on and when I reach my limit, I reflect on the determination and struggle that went into building, and defending, this 5,000-mile-long feat of military might—may it long stand!
- Before leaving Beijing: Don’t miss the buildings constructed for the Beijing Olympics! After seeing it on TV, I had to visit and photograph the National Stadium. Nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest” its tangled web of steel mesh shimmered like a sculptural lantern. And its warm nighttime glow was doubled by a sheet of reflective waters.
Terracotta Warriors. Try to picture 8,000 clay figures individually crafted to memorialize the real-life soldiers, musicians, acrobats and horses that they depict. Buried with Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor, the site was discovered by farmers in 1974 (imagine their wonder!). It’s the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century and there are digs still progressing. At the museum, you get to see figures up close and learn how they were created.
- Before leaving Xian: Throw coins from the windows of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda—it’s said to bring you good luck. And shop for distinctive Xian souvenirs: patterns created by cutting paper; finely-crafted pictures made of straw; replicas of terracotta warriors and gorgeous Xian embroidery.
My Yangtze River. Oh what a delight to be aboard ship! I have a special affinity for river cruising and the Yangtze was everything I longed for and more. The magnificent scenery of the Three Gorges struck me with awe and kept my video camera whirring. The first day we stopped at Shibao Pagoda and the next day we headed up the Shennong Stream. Then we were navigating the locks of the Three Gorges Dam—all in complete comfort and luxury. After being busy every minute on the land portion of the tour, it was wonderful to be so completely relaxed. Shanghai and home. China’s second largest city is the place for us to savor the Shanghai Shangri-la Hotel, so aptly named. We wake up to a city tour, a dim sum lunch and a performance by the famed Shanghai acrobats. It’s the perfect finish to my ideal exploration of China—one I’ll never forget.