Visiting 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.

A Visit to Xi’an’s Terra-Cotta Warriors Museum

Our next stop in China after Beijing was the city of Xi’an, which was put on the tourist map after the discovery of the Terra-Cotta Warriors. A farmer in the mid 1970’s was digging a well, and discovered what is now called Pit 1, the largest of three Pits with lengthy columns of carefully placed warriors, horses and chariots. The warriors are part of the funerary art created to protect the first emperor of China (Qin Shihuang) in the afterlife and date from about 210 BCE. The emperor’s tomb is about 1 mile away. The massive effort required to create such a display reminds one of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Although it seems a shame to have buried such amazing art, thank goodness it was, because we now are able to appreciate it 2,000 years later.

The Terra-Cotta Warriors museum is about 45 minutes by bus outside Xian. What impressed me most about the museum is its immense scale, I had no idea the museum was as large as it is, with 4 buildings, covering Pits 1, 2 and 3 and a separate building that houses the bronze chariots and other figures also discovered here (don’t miss this building during your visit).

Xi'an Terra Cotta Warriors Entrance

The entrance to the Museum. This was a moderately busy day!

They are called “pits” because they are literally earthen pit shelters where the terra-cotta warriors were buried.

Given the size of the museum complex, our tour guide did the right thing by giving a quick overview and then letting us wander the site on our own for a couple hours. We visited right before the start of the Chinese National Holidays, and I was glad we did. The museum was still busy, but less so than it would be just a few days later, when our guide said the line of traffic to get to the Museum was 10 km long! The Terra Cotta Warriors Museum is probably the #1 attraction in China for locals as well as tourists.

Pit 1

Pit 1 is the largest exhibit, but because of its scale, it’s a little more difficult to get a close observation of the warriors. It contains about 2,000 warriors and horses.

Terra Cotta Warrior Museum, Xi'an, China

Entrance to Pit 1, the largest of the three Pits.

Most people stop (and clog) at the view by front entrance, but make your way around to the sides (visit both sides) to get other interesting views of the warriors. Be prepared for lots of shoving and pushing as you deal with the mobs. Hang on to your belongings carefully!

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

View of Pit 1 near the entrance. Quite a sight to behold.

Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi'an, China

Another view of the warriors in Pit 1.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A side view of Pit 1. The original discovery was made from the digging of a well near the lower right of this photo.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A little closer view of the warriors. Their headgear denotes their rank. You can also see a bit of their color here.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A closer side view near the front entrance of Pit 1.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

At the rear of Pit 1, the painstaking restoration work on the terra-cotta figures continues.

Pit 2

Pit 2 is the smallest of the three pits, and excavation work continues here. It was discovered in April 1976, about two years after the discovery of Pit 1.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

This is a view of Pit 2, the smallest of the three. It consists of more variety of figures than Pit 1, with archers, chariots, calvary and infantry.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A closer view of Pit 2.

Pit 3

Pit 3 was the last to be discovered, in June 1976. Extensive damage to the figures in this pit occurred anciently. It was the “command center” for the warriors in the other Pits.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

A view of the original sloped entrance into Pit 3.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

View of Pit 3, showing the original earthen coverings and entrances into the Pit.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

Detail of Pit 3.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China.

Another detailed view of Pit 3, showing how all destroyed pieces have been labeled.

Bronze Chariots

In a separate building you will find perhaps the most amazing pieces of art at the museum, including two bronze chariot displays from the same era as the terra-cotta warriors.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

The building where the bronze chariots are located (on the basement level).

These chariots were discovered in 1978, near the emperor’s tomb, and brought to this museum for display. They are amazing in their detailed craftsmanship and have survived well over the centuries. They are made of bronze and painted, with some use of gold and silver too. They are on a 50% scale to full size.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

One of the bronze chariots.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

The second bronze chariot. The horses look so lifelike! Note the figure in the cart behind the horses.

Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, Xi'an, China

This figure, along with a number of other figures and artifacts are located in the same building as the bronze chariots. This guy is one of seven generals found in the Pits. His armor, headgear and neck bows all point to being a high-ranking officer.

Terra Cotta Warrior Museum, Xi'an, China

I’m not sure of the story behind this boat carved from jade, located in a hallway in the building with the bronze chariots. It has nothing to do (as far as I know) with the Terra Cotta Warriors, but it is an incredible piece of art!

Please note that you enter the huge museum complex in one direction, and on your exit  you go a separate direction through a myriad of food vendors and shops. The displays were quite colorful and entertaining!Xi'an Food3Xi'an Food1Xi'an Food2

Old central Xi’an itself is quite a stunning city, and in my next post I’ll share a few pictures of central part of the city.

The Summer Palace – A Bit of Paradise in Beijing

The last tourist sight we visited before leaving Beijing was the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is about 15 km (9 miles) northwest of central Beijing.

The Summer Palace is a huge expanse of gardens, temples and other structures, all dominated by the central feature, Kunming Lake. The Summer Palace provides a welcome respite from the traffic and noises of the city. If I were the Emperor, I would probably find an excuse to spend most of my time here!

Tower of Buddhist Incense, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Tower of Buddhist Incense sits on Longevity Hill, which was created from the excavation of Kunming Lake in the foreground. We did not have the time to climb up the tower, which would offer great views of the Summer Palace grounds. Unfortunately it was a bit hazy on the day we visited.

The Palace was initially built in 1750 by the Emperor Qianlong, and served as a royal retreat. It has undergone many restorations, particularly after 1860 due to the destruction caused by various conflicts. The person most associated with the Palace is the   Empress Dowager Cixi (officially “Holy Mother Empress Dowager”). She was born in 1835, became a concubine at the Palace and eventually saw her son (and later a nephew) become Emperors. However, she was the real power behind the throne for almost 40 years. Much of the restoration of the Palace took place during her “reign”.

As a tourist, it would be easy to spend a full day visiting the Palace, but at a minimum, allow 3 hours for your visit. Unfortunately it was late in the day when we arrived so we only had a couple hours to explore the surroundings. Since the Palace covers such a large area, be prepared for a lot of walking, climbing and possible boating excursions. (The photos below are in the order of our visit through the Palace Gardens).

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Just past the East Entrance is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (“one who is benevolent enjoys longevity”) used as an administrative area of the Emperor and Empress, where they would receive diplomats and conduct various affairs of the court.

Kylin, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Next to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity stands this mythical creature, called Kylin, which had the power to punish evil and repel the wicked – not hard to see why! It has a dragon head, lion tail, deer horns, and cattle hoofs, with a scaly, fish-like skin.

Beijing Summer Palace4

Wenchang Tower, largest of six gate forts in the Summer Palace garden. The tower is located near the East Entrance to the Summer Palace, along the shore of Kunming Lake.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

A view of the Long Corridor (or Long Gallery), which runs from near the east entrance to the Marble Boat along the north shore of Kunming Lake. Hundreds of paintings decorate the interior. It is probably the most iconic feature of the Summer Palace. The Long Corridor is 728 meters long, or nearly half a mile.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

An external view of the Long Corridor.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

One of the four octagonal pavilions in the Long Corridor, which represent the four seasons. The decorative paintings along the whole walk are quite beautiful.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

View of the ceiling of one of the four octagonal pavilions in the Long Corridor.

Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Marble Boat (Han Chuan, or Clear and Peaceful Boat) can be found at the end of the Long Gallery, along the north shore of Kunming Lake. It was originally built in 1755. It is quite a sight to behold.

Beijing Summer Palace16

Looking up at the Tower of Buddhist Incense from near the Long Corridor.

17 Arch Bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The 17 Arch Bridge in the distance – it is the largest bridge at the Summer Palace. It connects Nanhu Island in Kunming Lake to the mainland. (a couple of the arches are hidden by the boat).

The Palace is a bit of paradise in the huge, sprawling city of Beijing, and was one of my favorite places to visit. Bring your lunch and enjoy the scenery and people watching. Please note that the main entrance fee does not include several attractions (such as a boat ride) within the Palace gardens, those attractions will require separate fees.

 

Climbing The Great Wall of China — One of the Must-Do’s Near Beijing

The Great Wall without a doubt is the first thing that comes to mind when anyone thinks of China, possibly second only to Panda bears (which we also got to see, more on that in a later post). It’s probably one of those sights that’s on just about everyone’s bucket list. The Great Wall is very impressive, no matter what small portion of it that you are fortunate enough to visit. On this Sinorama tour, we visited the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall, which was a heavily fortified portion to protect a key route through the mountains on the way to Beijing, 31 miles away.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Juyongguan section of the Great Wall. We climbed up the Wall seen in the hills behind me. It took us about 1.5 hours to climb to the highest point (not quite visible), moving at a fairly quick pace.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

The steepness of the climb can be appreciated in this photo.

I cannot imagine the labor that went in to constructing the wall through the steep, rugged terrain and other natural barriers for thousands of miles. We found enough challenge in just climbing the section that we did, which was steep enough to be hard on the knee joints coming down.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Taking a short break on the only semi-level section of the Wall in this area.

North of Juyong Pass is Badaling, also considered part of the same pass, and a popular section of the Wall to visit. Years ago I visited the Mutianyu section, which is a bit further from Beijing.

Juyongguan Pass, Great Wall, Beijing, China

Looking towards the Badaling section of the Great Wall (in the far distance) from Juyongguan section, high above the Juyong Pass.

When we think of a wall, usually we think of a pretty straight line with two sides, and the Great Wall, at least in this part of the country, is anything but straight, partially due to the span of multiple construction eras over the centuries and partly due to the rugged landscape.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Other parts of the Juyongguan section of the Wall can be seen across the valley.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Lots of stairs–if your job was to patrol this section, you’d be in great shape!

Wall Facts:

The origins of the Wall date back over a millennia ago, although most of the wall we see today was built during the Ming Dynasty, between the mid 1300’s and 1600’s. The Wall runs across norther China and is about 5,500 miles long, of which about 3,800 miles is actual stone wall construction, with the remaining sections being other types of barriers (ditches and natural landscape). Source: Wikipedia

If you visit the Great Wall, be prepared for a LOT of walking, steps, and tourists, at least in the sections of the Wall near Beijing.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Some of the crowds making their way up as we were coming down. Get there early in the day if possible!

Great Wall Juyongguan Pass16

Get your souvenirs here!

Of course, there are many tourist shops at each location with food, drinks and souvenirs.

Great Wall Juyongguan Pass1

A view of the little village and shops at the base of the Juyongguan section of 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.