Last month, Rick and I explored China via Viking Cruises. In preparation, months ahead we secured our Chinese visas, studied our China travel book, and added two apps onto our phones. One app (Google Translate) translates Chinese writing into English as you hold your camera to it, and also translates verbally. Currency Calculator app displays the currency exchange from yuan to dollars and vice versa (as well as many other currencies around the world.)
China was the furthest we had ever traveled and the most culturally diverse. What an educational experience! We met wonderful people, laughed a lot, learned a lot, formed new friendships, and saw sights we had only viewed through books and screens.
Our guide, Ray, was Chinese.
Ray, our guide
Ray is married and has a sixteen year old daughter. He was fun, knowledgeable, responsible, and made our life easy, sharing his own candid insights along the way. I never heard him duck a question, and there were plenty from our lively group!
The accommodations in each city were fantastic. Here is an example of our hotel in Beijing, a city of 22 million people. I guess one of my surprises about China was how modern, commercial, and beautiful the cities are.
The Kerry Hotel – Beijing
While unpacking, I turned on the TV and what do you know? China’s version of America’s Got Talent!
Our first group outing in Beijing was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is 100 acres and the world’s largest public square, including Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, which you see behind Rick. We visited on Rick’s birthday. 🙂
Birthday Boy in Tiananmen Square
As we continued into the Forbidden City, we noted a large portrait of Mao Zedong, which looks like a very large photograph but is actually a painting.
Entrance to Forbidden City
Close-up of Mao Zedong painting.
Chairman Mao died in 1976 but his portrait is prominent across China, especially offering nostalgia to the elderly Chinese who often revere the communist leader and what they feel were secure values.
Entrance to Forbidden City
The Forbidden City was a great work-out, covering 720,000 square acres, and it seemed we covered most of it! This was the home of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1406 to 1911.
I want to say a word about restrooms…
Once inside the Forbidden City, we were offered our first public restroom stop. We had all heard about “squatters” and had been told that most public restrooms did offer a few “Western” toilets. There were a few younger ladies in our group who opted to try a “squatter” but the rest of us stood in the “Western” line. 🙂 When it was my turn for the “Western,” suddenly a Chinese lady who appeared to be in charge of the restroom held a “squatter” door open, motioned, and shouted at me in Chinese. I could only surmise that she had said, “Get in here, you chicken woman!” So, not to appear intimidated, I chose to experience a squatter on my first day in China and get it over with. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I will describe it for you. It had a privacy door, as did all the toilets, thank goodness. On the floor was something that resembled a shower pan and on the wall in front of me was a handle bar to hold when rising up. I was wearing a dress, so I gave it my best shot. I have bad knees. It did not go well. Messy and embarrassed, had we not all been pressed for time, I would have dug in my purse for pencil and paper and scribbled an Out of Order sign for future occupants. The rest of the trip, I managed to snag a Western stall.
According to Ray, the Chinese regard Western toilets as unclean, because one person after another is sitting on that same space. When asked what was in his home, he replied, “A Western toilet.”
Inside the Forbidden City
Corner Roof Detail
One issue we had to adjust to was jet lag due to a 12 hour time difference. We were exhausted and yet in the evening we were entertained at the Red Theatre by a production of The Legend of Kung Fu.
Our second day presented the main reason we traveled to China–The Great Wall. Chinese mythology claims that evil spirits can only travel in a straight line, hence the winding, undulating engineering feat.
Once stretching for more than 6200 miles, the early 16th century Great Wall represented power and isolation. Some sections today are in disrepair, but we were determined to conquer The Fourth Tower. I had envisioned a very, very long meandering path. And it was very, very long. But not casually strolling flat… We walked and then climbed, walked and climbed, to stone towers which would have housed a garrison of at least 100 soldiers.
The Great Wall of China
This picture portrays how steep the incline at various points. Note the tourists hanging onto the rail both ascending and descending. And the steps are varying sizes.
Our experienced guide insisted we arrive at the wall in the early morning hours when the temperature was cool and the people were few. Wise move. After an hour, we reached our goal:
Feeling elated and victorious, we started back down, but I stopped to purchase a souvenir from this fascinating artist.
Right before my eyes, he used a small stylus tool to chisel the Great Wall of China into a block of granite! I will always cherish this treasure.
Back on the bus, we had time for a short nap before stopping at a jade factory. I did not realize that jade can present as colors other than green, including lavender and black. Of course, we could shop, and I now have jade earrings. 🙂
Our last stop was the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs. Thirteen emperors were buried in mausoleums in this valley. Here are just of few of the many huge but intricate sculptures.
That evening we were treated to a classic Chinese dish–Peking Duck carved tableside by our honorable chef at a famous Beijing restaurant.
One of the best outings was the day we enjoyed a rickshaw ride through Old Beijing. Our caravan of rickshaws traveled on narrow alleyways through a quaint hutong neighborhood to a typical Chinese household.
There a lady and her niece described life in their tight-knit community. The younger girl demonstrated her talent for painting scenes inside tiny glass bottles which were available for purchase. Commerce is alive and well, even in Old Beijing. 🙂
Gentle neighborhood folk cherish their pets as we do.
We continued through the Bell and Drum Square where a renowned hacky sack expert wowed us with his skills.
And then we learned the art of tea service… And yes, we purchased a tin of tea.
The next morning we flew to Xian, China, and checked into another fabulous hotel.
The Hilton Xi’an
One of the world’s richest and biggest cities during the Tang Dynasty, Xian was once the capital of China. Today it is most famous for the ancient Terra Cotta Warriors discovered in 1976 when a farmer was digging a well. The emperor of the Tang Dynasty had thousands of warriors sculpted to accompany him and protect him in the afterlife. A visit to this archaeological find allowed us to use elevated walkways to view more than 8,000 life-sized warriors, chariots, and horses. Imagine a structure like an airplane hangar, only football fields long. The excavation site is displayed in all stages–completed sculptures,
those in varying states of repair,
and even ditches where we viewed scattered remains yet to be meticulously pieced together.
The Terra Cotta Warriors site was one of the most fascinating displays I have ever seen in my entire life.
Later in the afternoon, we had time to take a walk around our hotel area, and since my friends and I play Mah Jongg, I was delighted to find groups playing this game of tiles that originated in China during the Qing Dynasty.
And then, another amazing find…Starbucks with translations on the menu! 🙂
In the evening we attended the Tang Dynasty dinner and show.
On the drive back, we glimpsed the brightly lit city wall,
and a beautiful community center.
The next day we flew to Chongqing, China’s most important inland city. We boarded our ship for the Viking Cruise on the Yangtze River. As we sailed away, the city sights were breathtaking.
Our first excursion from the ship was to Shibaozhai, China, where we visited a twelve story pagoda and climbed an interior spiral staircase to the revered temple. First we crossed a swinging bridge.
The Shibaozhai Temple
View from the top
That night as we sailed again, we traveled under a stunning bridge that changed color.
The following day offered the Lesser Three Gorges Excursion. We boarded a small sampan boat that cruised us into the most beautiful canyon with dramatic steep sides draped in lush greenery.
We could see the hanging coffins of the Ba people. Yes, they buried people on the mountainside.
Honestly, I believe that was my favorite part of the whole trip. So very beautiful and relaxing. Or maybe it was just because it was one of the few times I remember seeing sunshine. Think I was having sunshine deprivation.
Back on the ship, we could watch painting demonstrations,
or even take Mah Jongg classes.
The next excursion was to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power station in the world.
And that night we entered a series of locks.
The massive doors closed behind us.
Luckily, I am not claustrophobic. Several other boats were in the locks with us at the same time.
Since I am a retired teacher, I loved our next excursion to an elementary school in Jingzhou, China. Viking sponsors the school and the children loved performing for us. Their giggles and friendships proved that children are the same the world over. They could just as well have been my former fourth grade students.
One of the most appealing aspects of the five days on the ship was the traffic on the river. I was not expecting to see other boats and ships all day and night long. Nice surprise. Small boats to container ships–I love them all! Some nights I would wake up, go out on our little balcony, and watch the ships go by. 🙂
Before we disembarked, we were invited to visit the ship’s bridge. Right up my alley, er… river.
In Wuhan, China, we visited the Hubei Museum and listened to the lovely chimes and bells performance.
We flew on to Shanghai, China, where our last hotel was even more spectacular.
The Westin Bund, Shanghai
Night view from our room.
The hotel was located by the famous Bund district, the city’s elegant riverfront promenade.
Shanghai is the largest city in China, 25 million people, a modern metropolis and center of finance. Here are some building views across the river, including the second tallest building in the world, and the building Tom Cruise swung from in “Mission Impossible.”
Second tallest building in the world.
We struck out on our own for an evening river tour, but first we grabbed a bite at McDonald’s with a touch menu. 🙂
Shanghai’s after dark skyline.
We strolled the winding paths and narrow lanes of Old Shanghai, shopped, then stopped for lunch at a delicious dim sum restaurant.
After lunch we stopped at a silk carpet and embroidery workshop to witness an ancient craft. The carpets seen hanging in the background were created by the loom process the young lady is crafting in the foreground.
Although the following works of art look like paintings, they are actually fine silken threads embroidered onto silk fabric.
In the evening we marveled at a breathtaking show by the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe.
A perfect way to bring our thirteen day tour to a close. We jetted the 15 hour trip home filled with fabulous memories!