China

Cruising Up the Yangtze River

My wife and I have been on a number of cruises over the years, and although it’s not our preferred method of sightseeing, we have enjoyed the cruises we’ve taken (various Caribbean cruises and one in northern Europe). As part of our tour of China, a Yangtze River Cruise was included*. This was a four night trip, and prior to its start, our guide touted the cruise as a highlight of the tour. To be honest, we found the cruise a bit boring, especially after the first couple of days.

The reason I say this cruise was somewhat boring is because we are used to a lot of shore excursions and on board activities on other cruises. However, on this trip, other than a few organized stops, we were “stuck” on the ship and since a river cruise ship is smaller, it really didn’t offer a lot of entertainment options–there were a few shows, a few shops, a swimming pool and the typical buffet meals and that was about it.

Yangtze River Cruise, China

Our Yangtze River cruise ship – the Yangtze Gold 8.

Cruise ship, Yangtze River, China

The pool on our cruise ship.

If you want a quiet cruise with little to do, this might be the one for you. My advice – bring a couple of good books, download some movies or games and enjoy the quiet time.

Overall, I was impressed with the cruise ship itself, it of course is smaller than ocean-going cruise ships, but it still had a number of amenities and comfortable staterooms, every stateroom has a river-view balcony.

Yangtze River Cruise, China

Our stateroom on the Yangtze River Cruise.

The food on the ship was reasonable, but if you get a late night craving, it’s a good idea to bring your own snacks!

The cruise started in the city of Jingzhou and travelled up river, ending in Chongqing (a total distance of about 700 km or 435 miles). We briefly toured Jingzhou before embarking on the cruise. It is a very historical city and has a good museum.

Jingzhou City Wall, China

Jingzhou has an old wall surrounding the city, not unlike Xi’an and cities in Europe. This is one of the gates.

Jingzhou Museum, China.

This is a mummified corpse found near Jingzhou from the Han Dynasty (221 BCE – 24 AD). Note the facial and teeth detail. The Jingzhou museum has artifacts discovered in this region of China dating back 4000 – 5000 years.

A number of cruise lines offer cruises of a similar length and itinerary. The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world. It is a major industrial thoroughfare, with continual freighter traffic moving all kinds of goods up and down the river.

Yangtze River, China

Typical freighter traffic on the Yangtze River. The scenery around us on the first couple of days was quite beautiful. Unfortunately it was pretty cloudy with a continual threat of rain.

The first part of the cruise was interesting, with gorgeous scenery. You go through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam the first night. Three Gorges is the largest dam in the world, a controversial project that took about 18 years to complete.

Three Gorges Dam, Yangtze River, China.

A view of the Three Gorges Dam. It was hard to get a photo that conveys the immensity of the dam, since tourists get very limited viewpoints. The dam is 594 ft high and 7661 ft long.

Yangtze River Cruise Three Gorges Dam1

A view of the locks at the Three Gorges Dam. Ships can be seen in the closest lock–our cruise ship passed through these locks.

We then visited the Water Village, and while this stop is a bit of a tourist trap, the scenery  along the Long Jin stream feeding into the Yangtze and traditional buildings on this part of the tour were beautiful, along with narrow canyons and mysterious peaks all around us.

Water Village, Yangtze River Cruise, China

The Water Village, along a beautiful stream that empties into the Yangtze River.

Water Village Tour, Yangtze River Cruise, China

View along the Long Jin stream near the Water Village.

Water Village Tour, Yangtze River Cruise, China

Another view of the Long Jin stream near the Water Village.

Water Village, Yangtze River Cruise, China

Food vendor in the Water Village – with fish on a stick!

Another highlight was the Wu Gorge, where we transferred to small boats that took us up into the narrow passageway with waterfalls and wildlife visible.

Wu Gorge, Yangtze River Cruise, China

Going up the Wu Gorge in our tour boats.

After the first couple of days, the river widens out, appears more polluted and the shoreline becomes more populated, with endless high-rise apartment buildings and large cities lining the banks.

Shibaozhai Pagoda, Yangtze River Cruise, China

One other interesting place we visited near the end of our cruise was the Shibaozhai Pagoda, with its 12 levels built into the mountainside. Through a narrow stairway you can climb to the top. It was originally built in 1572, and is the highest ancient multi-story wooden structure in China.

Shibaozhai Pagoda, Yangtze River Cruise, China

The hill on which Shibaozhai Pagoda sits became an island after the building of the Three Gorges dam, the pagoda was protected by building a large wall, visible at river level. At the top of the hill a Buddhist temple contains displays of numerous gods, with explanations on their importance.

Shibaozhai Pagoda.

Display of two Buddhist gods in the Shibaozhai Pagoda Temple.

Shibaozhai Pagoda, Yangtze River Cruise, China

Tourist market near the Shibaozhai Pagoda.

The cruise ended in Chongqing (formerly Chungking), a huge and fast growing city (the metropolitan area’s population is about 18 million).

Chongqing, China

View of Chongqing and the Yangtze River.

In Chongqing, we visited an interesting old section of the city and a zoo, specifically to see the cute Panda bears. I will cover Chongqing in another post.

*I just learned that Sinorama Tours, based in Vancouver, Canada, has ceased operations as of August 2018. They were the company we used to arrange our China Tour. This is unfortunate, they offered a great tour value.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Visiting the Forbidden City and Other Sights in Beijing

My first visit to Beijing was in 1997. My, how things have changed in twenty years. I recall back then flying in to a small, drab airport that reinforced the feeling of being in a third world country (the current airport was under construction at the time). There was very limited car traffic and the roads were clogged with thousands of bicyclists. Central Beijing felt like a relatively small city (for China) that was easy to walk.

The city has expanded and changed dramatically in the past 20 years, but even so, the key tourist sights are still there and just as amazing now as they were then. We even lucked out on this last trip and had beautiful, clear weather rather than the common heavy gray smog.

In this post I’ll share several of the sights we visited on the first day of our China tour.

Temple of Heaven

This is one of the sights I had visited previously during a business trip to China (see my post here). The Temple of Heaven is a postcard symbol of Beijing. The Emperor would make his way from the Forbidden City to this temple to pray for good harvests each year.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

A view of the Temple of Heaven.

The thing I noticed on this visit was the many senior citizens playing card and other games along the entrance corridor to the Temple, probably because it was a beautiful day and the Temple’s grounds are a park-like oasis in a very busy city.

Beijing Temple of Heaven8

Playing cards near the entrance to the Temple of Heaven.

Hutong Area

I had not been to this area of Beijing previously and I would have loved to explore it further. The word Hutong refers to traditional Chinese neighborhoods with narrow alleys, streets and homes with hidden courtyards, and that’s exactly what this area is like, along with some pretty lakes and park-like areas.

Hutong Area, Beijing, China

The peaceful setting of the Hutong Area.

Hutong Area, Beijing, China

On our rickshaw ride in the Hutong Area of Beijing.

Beijing Hutong2

Another view of the shops in the Hutong Area.

Many Hutongs have been demolished with the rapid growth of Beijing and the government seems intent on preserving what remains of these examples of Chinese history and culture. We took a rickshaw ride through the old streets and ate lunch here in a person’s home. Some Hutongs date back to the 13th century.

Beijing Hutong Lunch2

Our tour group having lunch (which was one of our best meals) inside a person’s home in the Hutong Area of Beijing.

Tiananmen Square

Beijing is laid out in a series of concentric circles, and at the center of Beijing lies Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is probably best known to people in the U.S. as “ground zero” of the student uprising in 1989, which is known locally as the “June 4th incident”, where thousands of students camped out in the Square and were eventually forced to flee the troops and tanks sent to clear the Square. In the process of squelching the protests several hundred demonstrators were killed.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Beautiful displays in Tiananmen Square in preparation for the National Holidays. The entrance to the Forbidden City is in the background. The Square can hold one million people.

Monument to the People's Heroes, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

The Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Dedicated to the martyrs of the Revolution. The monument is 10 stories high. In the background is the Great Hall of the People, used for legislative and ceremonial activities.

Worker's Statue, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Worker’s Statue, Tiananmen Square.

This historic, huge square is surrounded by a national museum, the mausoleum of Mao Zedong, a Great Hall and other government buildings. The Square is used for public events, government celebrations and as the main route for entrance into the Forbidden City, the main attraction in central Beijing.

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is directly north of Tiananmen Square and it’s called the “Forbidden” City since no one other than members of the Imperial Court or special dignitaries were allowed inside. There is a specific route from south to north that you follow through the Forbidden City, the photos below are in the order of our visit from the south entrance to north entrance.

Tiananmen Tower, Beijing, China

Entrance to the Forbidden City is through Tiananmen Tower, located just to the north of Tiananmen Square.

Meridian Gate, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Meridian Gate is the actual entrance to the Forbidden City and lies north of the Tiananmen Tower.

This was the Imperial Palace of China for 500 years, from the early 1400’s to the early 1900’s. The emperor would live, work and receive audiences here, and oversee the care of his thousands of consorts and concubines.

Gate of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Gate of Supreme Harmony provides access to the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the surrounding courtyards.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

After the Gate of Supreme Harmony is this courtyard, with the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the background. It is one of the largest wooden structures in China and the largest Hall in the Forbidden City.

More than a million workers labored for 14 years to build the enormous palace complex and surrounding Tongzi Moat. The palace includes almost 1,000 buildings and covers an immense area. Only the Palace museum, main halls, gates and squares are open to tourists, and disappointingly, in some cases a direct view into the halls for photos was not allowed. I have no idea why. Be prepared for a LOT of walking.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

From the steps of the Hall of Supreme Harmony looking southeast.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

It was difficult to get a good photo of the interior of the Hall of Supreme Harmony due to barricades surrounding the entrance.

Hall of Central Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Interior of the Hall of Central Harmony. Once again, it was impossible to get a good view of the main throne area.

Large Stone Carving, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Large Stone Carving, behind the Hall of Preserved Harmony. Anyone caught touching this carving during the time of the Emperors would receive the death penalty!

The Gate of Heavenly Purity, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Gate of Heavenly Purity leads to the last set of Halls and Palaces before the Imperial Gardens at the north end of the Forbidden City.

Hall of Heavenly Purity, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Palace of Heavenly Purity. Intricate stone carvings are found everywhere in the Forbidden City.

Hall of Union and Hall of Earthly Tranquility, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Hall of Union and Hall of Earthly Tranquility.

Hall of One Thousand Autumns, Imperial Gardens, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Hall of One Thousand Autumns, Imperial Gardens of the Forbidden City.

While audioguides are available, the English signage is good throughout the Forbidden City. Surprisingly on the day of our visit, the City was not terribly crowded, probably because we were there just prior to the start of the Chinese National Holiday. The palace receives 15 million visitors annually.

2008 Olympic Venues

We made a quick stop at the sight of the 2008 Olympics, hard for me to believe it’s been 10 years since Michael Phelps won a world record 8 gold medals in swimming in Beijing. Of course, the event locations are spread out over a large area, and there is no one location or overlook to view the entire site, but our guide and driver were kind enough to stop and let us at least get a quick glimpse of where some of the main events were held.

2008 Olympic Venues, Beijing, China

A view of the Aquatic Center where Michael Phelps won his 8 gold medals and the “Birds Nest” arena behind it from the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

In my next post, we’ll visit the Summer Palace and the Great Wall.

A Tour of China – Overview

Although I have been to China a number of times on business, I had visited only a few cities and never took the time to be a tourist. My wife had not been to China and since this country was high on her bucket list, we finally took the plunge and did a tour in late September / early October. Overall, the fall was a pretty good time of year to go, the weather was reasonable (not too hot or cold). The only downside was that October 1st is a Chinese National Holiday (celebrating the anniversary of the communist revolution) and the Chinese have eight straight days of vacation time around October 1st, meaning they were taking road trips to the tourist sites just like we were. Luckily, we were able for the most part to stay one step ahead of the local holiday revelers due to our savvy tour guide.

Shanghai China3

Our family with our Sinorama tour guide, Jessie, who was fantastic.

Although I’ve made it clear over the years that I am not a fan of tour groups, we found that a tour was the way to go in China, saving a lot of headaches trying to figure out how to get around this huge, somewhat confusing country independently. We used Sinorama Tours, based in Vancouver, Canada. The tour was an amazing value, largely because the Chinese government subsidizes the tours to promote tourism to China. Our 15 day tour price (approximately, per person) of $1,750 included roundtrip airfare on Air Canada from San Francisco (your departure city may cost more via Vancouver, B.C. to Beijing), all hotels (which were very good business-class hotels), most meals, entrance fees, a 4 night Yangtze River cruise, internal flights (3) and local transportation! Some activities (acrobat show, some dinners and other side tours) were extra. Since the tour company is Canadian, about half our group was from Canada, the rest from the U.S.

Acrobat show, Shanghai, China.

An acrobat show in Shanghai, which was a great experience.

We started our tour in Beijing and ended in Shanghai (other members of our tour group continued on from Shanghai and ended in Hong Kong via a few other stops). You can find our itinerary here.

A few observations about China and this tour:

  1. Soak up the culture. China is teeming with a variety of peoples and cultures within its expansive borders. We were were able to just get a glimpse of its amazing history – take advantage of the local scene where you can, along with the art, museums and world-class sights.
    Shanghai, China.

    A local grocer in Shanghai.

    Xi'an street vendors, China

    Street vendors in Xi’an, one of my favorite cities in China.

  2. A fast developing economy. China is changing dramatically and extremely quickly. What blew my family away more than anything was the fast pace of growth in China – new buildings, highways, airports, bridges, etc. going up all at once and everywhere. The scale of construction activity is really beyond comprehension.
    Chonqing34

    A panorama of the ultra modern central square in Chonqing, on the Yangtze River.

    Wuhan, China.

    New apartment buildings going up in Wuhan, just a small example of the endless construction going on in China.

  3. Weather. Expect that most days will be gray and overcast, due to the humidity and smog (bring an umbrella!). I think the government is trying to improve the air quality, but we had very few clear, bright sunny days.

    Shanghai2

    A pretty rare clear day – a view of the Shanghai skyline driving in from the Pudong airport.

  4. Crowds. Just plan on lots of local people filling the streets wherever you go. Some pushing and shoving is to be expected in really heavy crowds and you just have to hold your ground (somewhat true at airports or on planes too). However, I never felt unsafe or worried about theft, although I made sure I knew where my valuables were at all times and limited what I carried with me during the day. Take the usual precautions with your belongings and you should be fine.

    Terra Cotta Warriors Museum.

    At the Terra Cotta Warriors museum. This was a very light day in terms of tourists!

  5. On the tour, the food is OK. Sinorama runs many tours, and the tour groups tend to eat around the same time at the same locations, sometimes hotels or other venues with large eating areas. Real Chinese food in China is not quite P. F. Chang’s. The quality varied, and we would say it was “OK” for the most part – some meals were good, some so-so, some not so good.
    Beijing Great Wall Lunch

    A typical meal (lunch) layout (most meals came with 5-6 dishes, they are just starting the service here).

    Sinorama admits the food quality varies. Just go with the flow. Common dishes included some bland vegetables, scrambled eggs in a tomato base soup of sorts, fried chicken pieces, occasional other meat dishes, and always a serving of watermelon at the end of the meal.

    Chonqing17

    We found an EXCELLENT noodle shop close to our hotel in Xi’an.

    Learn how to eat with chopsticks! We also wandered around and found some excellent small restaurants on our own.

  6. As part of the tour, expect some visits to local businesses. This is the part that I usually hate with tours, the “forced” shopping and feeling that you must buy something to support the locals. However, over 15 days we only visited a few factories: silk, cloisonné, jade, terra cotta, and some other art shops. Not too bad for the length of the tour, and few of these workshops were quite interesting – we even bought a few things!
    Terra Cotta Warriors.

    At the Terra Cotta Warriors shop in Xi’an, where you can buy a statue for your home, not far from the actual Museum.

    Cloisonné factory, Beijing, China

    Workers (I would call them amazingly skilled artists) at the cloisonné factory near Beijing.

    Beijing Cloissonne Factory1

    Finished product at the cloisonné factory.

  7. The tour provides excellent transportation. We had large, comfortable tour buses in each location and the three flights within China were comfortable. As stated above, China is developing rapidly and every city we flew into had a new, huge, modern airport.

    Beijing China airport.

    Interior view of the Beijing airport.

My future posts will focus on the sights we visited. Once again, I commend Sinorama for their excellent work in accommodating such varied tourist needs and coordinating so many logistics.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven-Beijing, China

On a business trip to China in August 2010 I was in Beijing and took the opportunity to visit the Temple of Heaven complex. I had seen pictures of the round Temple, but I had no idea it was part of such a large complex covering about 675 acres on the south side of Beijing (to see more of Beijing click here).

Beijing is laid out in a series of concentric “ring roads” with the main historical area (Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square) in the center ring. I stayed at the Ascott Hotel on the west side of Beijing, about 15 minutes by taxi from the Forbidden City and about 15-20 minutes from the Temple of Heaven. The Ascott is a great business hotel, and my room (with a corporate discount) was less than $150/night. The rooms are large-actually small apartments with a clothes washer, small kitchen and living room. It is also within walking distance of the “Beijing Friendship Store” on Jian Guo Road which has about 5 floors of packed shopping stalls with everything you can imagine for sale-be prepared to be hounded by the shopkeepers!

I arrived at the North Gate of the Temple of Heaven after a $4 taxi ride from the Ascott, and paid about $10 for the entry fee, which included not only the Temple of Heaven itself, but some of the other important buildings on the site as well. (Be sure to verify what your ticket provides access to, since there are a few options). There is a nice souvenir map available at the ticket office.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

The Temple of Heaven (or “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests”) was built in 1420.  The other buildings date from the 1400’s and 1500’s. The Emperors’ annual procession (must have been quite impressive-over a mile long and included elephants, musicians, imperial guards and other officials) began in the Forbidden City and marched south to this complex. The extensive, tranquil gardens provide a good buffer to the exterior world. The Temple of Heaven is where Emperors would offer sacrifices and pray for a good harvest. The Emperors also lived here and fasted during the ceremonies, keeping themselves focused in a state of worship.

Hall of Fasting, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Hall of Fasting

In addition to the Temple of Heaven, visit the Hall of Fasting, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Echo Wall, the Circular Mound Altar and the Divine Music Office, which has a display of interesting instruments and huge drums.

Imperial Vault of Heaven, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China.

Imperial Vault of Heaven.

temple-of-heaven-kitchen

North Kitchen, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China.

Other buildings include the kitchen complexes and the butcher house, which prepared the animal sacrifices. Apparently the animal sacrifices were beaten with mallets rather than butchered with a knife-not something I really want to think about too much.

A long covered walkway protected the sacrifices as they made their way from the Divine Kitchen to the altar in the Temple of Heaven. The walkway is open, but the kitchens and butcher house were not open during my visit.