China adventure: Chongqing, Xi’an and Beijing

By Randy Keck
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by Randy Keck (Third of three parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3)

The final portion of my journey to China in October-November 2005 commenced upon disembarking in Chongqing after completing our 5-day/4-night Yangtze River Three Gorges cruise.

The city square at Chongqing provides a visual feast for the eye. Photos: Keck

Our local guide, Daniel, advised we were now in the land of spicy, fiery cooking, short-tempered locals and China’s hottest summers as well as a city in which it is generally acknowledged that women are formally in charge of the family power structure and male/female relationships.

When I inquired of Daniel how this situation of female dominance had transpired in this region, he looked helplessly at me and remarked, “What can we do about it? Nothing.”

Chongqing, which, with over 31 million residents, claims to be the world’s most populated municipality, is an ancient city built on a series of hills and as a result is devoid of the prominent bicycle culture evident in most areas of China.

The downtown area is on a peninsula between two rivers. It was here that we visited a local zoo to see the favored pandas and the more entertaining Tibetan bears, among other animals. We also visited an adjoining fine arts academy, where we learned about rice paper art.

Later, before going to the airport for our flight to Xi’an, Daniel took us to visit his home in a newer condo complex so we could get an idea of life in a local residential environment. His nice, modern, 2-bedroom, approximately 1,000-square-foot condo cost about $15,000 — an unbelievable bargain by Western standards.

Xi’an’s Terra Cotta Army

The focus of our visit to Xi’an was the amazing Terra Cotta Army Museum complex, where over 8,000 live-sized warriors have been guarding the tomb of the first emperor Qi for over 2,000 years.

A local mother and her young son in traditional costume at the Summer Palace outside Beijing.

The buried army was discovered in 1974 when the head of a terra-cotta warrior was unearthed by local farmers. After five years of excavation and construction, the first stage of the current museum complex was opened in 1979. Repair and reconstruction of the warriors have continued since, and today the army is an important historic and tourist attraction with over three million visitors annually, including 700,000 Westerners. The Terra Cotta Army is certainly one of the world’s great man-made wonders.

In Xi’an, as in the other cities we visited, the parks were full of local adults in the morning exercising, dancing and participating in some of the eight types and 34 subcategories of Tai Chi. Witnessing these healthy lifestyle practices, I found them both culturally impressive and inspirational.

Our tour hotel, the Hyatt, was centrally located and without fault.

In Xi’an I had the opportunity for a second foot-massage experience at a local hotel parlor. It was equal, if not better, and somewhat different in style than our group’s foot-massage experience in Wuhan earlier in the tour. The bargain price of $12 for the 1_-hour treatment was value beyond compare. Local guides can recommend the best places for a foot massage, and there are many venues in most cities.

Beijing finale and the Great Wall

The cook at full throttle at our home-hosted dinner in the hutong quarter of Beijing.

Our three days in exciting Beijing, China’s historic capital city and host of the upcoming 2008 Olympics, were a whirlwind of activity.

Tiananmen Square in the very center of Beijing is the city’s most popular attraction. Our walking tour also included the expansive grounds of the magnificent Forbidden City, home to China’s 20 emperors between the early 1400s and 1924. We concluded with an unscheduled tea ceremony in a garden teahouse in Jingshan Park.

View from the heights of the Great Wall at Badaling.

Other attractions visited included the Temple of Heaven and the beautiful Summer Palace. One of my Bejing highlights was our evening rickshaw ride through the narrow lanes of the old hutongs quarter, where we met and were served a wonderful dinner by a local family.

Built between the fifth century B.C. and 16th century A.D., the Great Wall remains very much an important part of the cultural identity of the Chinese people. I found it to be humbling and simply felt grateful for the opportunity to experience the legacy of so many centuries of human labor and sacrifice.

Six of our group, all 50-plus, managed the long, steep climb to the top at our Badaling entry point — only recommended for those in good physical shape.

The enduring Great Wall is, to me, a lifeline from the past to the present that fittingly stretches on indefinitely into the future. It was, to be sure, a most fitting finale for our varied and bountiful 15-day China adventure.

On visiting China

Group members help in stretching silk at a silk factory.

Most travelers understand that having good guides and tour directors can make or break a tour experience. In China, the best, most experienced English-speaking guides and tour directors are usually assigned to groups of 15 or more. With many tour companies, an English-speaking tour director only accompanies groups of 12 to 15 or more. Smaller groups usually have only local guides and often not the most experienced.

The experience of touring China with or without a tour director can be quite different in terms of quality. A tour director can make impromptu changes in itinerary, timing and destinations along the way that can improve time utilization and the overall travel experience. Local guides usually do not have the ability and/or the authority to do these same things.

For China, my recommendation is that prospective travelers make every effort to insist on joining a group departure that will be large enough to insure having a tour director.

The Sheila factor

Tour director Sheila Li Tan explained cloisonné art to our group.

Our group was most fortunate to be led by Sheila Li Tan, a very experienced tour director and a resident of Beijing. She is the top China tour director used by my trip host, Value World Tours.

Sheila worked absolute magic on our 15-day “Three Gorges Deluxe” tour, making numerous behind-the-scenes changes and additions that greatly improved our tour experience. She exhibited the perfect blend of professionalism, humor and patience and was a pure delight to travel with. Traveling to China with Value World Tours with a group led by Sheila all but guarantees the best possible experience.

Value World Tours offers several tour/cruise itineraries for China as well as for Thailand, Vietnam and several regions of Europe and Russia. Call Value World Tours in Fountain Valley, California, at 800/795-1633, e-mail cruise@vwtours.com or visit www.rivercruises.net.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝CHINA
The individual consciousness — impressive
The collective consciousness — a magnum force ❞
— Randy’s short and sweet summation of his visit to China

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Randy Keck (Third of three parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3)

The final portion of my journey to China in October-November 2005 commenced upon disembarking in Chongqing after completing our 5-day/4-night Yangtze River Three Gorges cruise.

The city square at Chongqing provides a visual feast for the eye. Photos: Keck

Our local guide, Daniel, advised we were now in the land of spicy, fiery cooking, short-tempered locals and China’s hottest summers as well as a city in which it is generally acknowledged that women are formally in charge of the family power structure and male/female relationships.

When I inquired of Daniel how this situation of female dominance had transpired in this region, he looked helplessly at me and remarked, “What can we do about it? Nothing.”

Chongqing, which, with over 31 million residents, claims to be the world’s most populated municipality, is an ancient city built on a series of hills and as a result is devoid of the prominent bicycle culture evident in most areas of China.

The downtown area is on a peninsula between two rivers. It was here that we visited a local zoo to see the favored pandas and the more entertaining Tibetan bears, among other animals. We also visited an adjoining fine arts academy, where we learned about rice paper art.

Later, before going to the airport for our flight to Xi’an, Daniel took us to visit his home in a newer condo complex so we could get an idea of life in a local residential environment. His nice, modern, 2-bedroom, approximately 1,000-square-foot condo cost about $15,000 — an unbelievable bargain by Western standards.

Xi’an’s Terra Cotta Army

The focus of our visit to Xi’an was the amazing Terra Cotta Army Museum complex, where over 8,000 live-sized warriors have been guarding the tomb of the first emperor Qi for over 2,000 years.

A local mother and her young son in traditional costume at the Summer Palace outside Beijing.

The buried army was discovered in 1974 when the head of a terra-cotta warrior was unearthed by local farmers. After five years of excavation and construction, the first stage of the current museum complex was opened in 1979. Repair and reconstruction of the warriors have continued since, and today the army is an important historic and tourist attraction with over three million visitors annually, including 700,000 Westerners. The Terra Cotta Army is certainly one of the world’s great man-made wonders.

In Xi’an, as in the other cities we visited, the parks were full of local adults in the morning exercising, dancing and participating in some of the eight types and 34 subcategories of Tai Chi. Witnessing these healthy lifestyle practices, I found them both culturally impressive and inspirational.

Our tour hotel, the Hyatt, was centrally located and without fault.

In Xi’an I had the opportunity for a second foot-massage experience at a local hotel parlor. It was equal, if not better, and somewhat different in style than our group’s foot-massage experience in Wuhan earlier in the tour. The bargain price of $12 for the 1_-hour treatment was value beyond compare. Local guides can recommend the best places for a foot massage, and there are many venues in most cities.

Beijing finale and the Great Wall

The cook at full throttle at our home-hosted dinner in the hutong quarter of Beijing.

Our three days in exciting Beijing, China’s historic capital city and host of the upcoming 2008 Olympics, were a whirlwind of activity.

Tiananmen Square in the very center of Beijing is the city’s most popular attraction. Our walking tour also included the expansive grounds of the magnificent Forbidden City, home to China’s 20 emperors between the early 1400s and 1924. We concluded with an unscheduled tea ceremony in a garden teahouse in Jingshan Park.

View from the heights of the Great Wall at Badaling.

Other attractions visited included the Temple of Heaven and the beautiful Summer Palace. One of my Bejing highlights was our evening rickshaw ride through the narrow lanes of the old hutongs quarter, where we met and were served a wonderful dinner by a local family.

Built between the fifth century B.C. and 16th century A.D., the Great Wall remains very much an important part of the cultural identity of the Chinese people. I found it to be humbling and simply felt grateful for the opportunity to experience the legacy of so many centuries of human labor and sacrifice.

Six of our group, all 50-plus, managed the long, steep climb to the top at our Badaling entry point — only recommended for those in good physical shape.

The enduring Great Wall is, to me, a lifeline from the past to the present that fittingly stretches on indefinitely into the future. It was, to be sure, a most fitting finale for our varied and bountiful 15-day China adventure.

On visiting China

Group members help in stretching silk at a silk factory.

Most travelers understand that having good guides and tour directors can make or break a tour experience. In China, the best, most experienced English-speaking guides and tour directors are usually assigned to groups of 15 or more. With many tour companies, an English-speaking tour director only accompanies groups of 12 to 15 or more. Smaller groups usually have only local guides and often not the most experienced.

The experience of touring China with or without a tour director can be quite different in terms of quality. A tour director can make impromptu changes in itinerary, timing and destinations along the way that can improve time utilization and the overall travel experience. Local guides usually do not have the ability and/or the authority to do these same things.

For China, my recommendation is that prospective travelers make every effort to insist on joining a group departure that will be large enough to insure having a tour director.

The Sheila factor

Tour director Sheila Li Tan explained cloisonné art to our group.

Our group was most fortunate to be led by Sheila Li Tan, a very experienced tour director and a resident of Beijing. She is the top China tour director used by my trip host, Value World Tours.

Sheila worked absolute magic on our 15-day “Three Gorges Deluxe” tour, making numerous behind-the-scenes changes and additions that greatly improved our tour experience. She exhibited the perfect blend of professionalism, humor and patience and was a pure delight to travel with. Traveling to China with Value World Tours with a group led by Sheila all but guarantees the best possible experience.

Value World Tours offers several tour/cruise itineraries for China as well as for Thailand, Vietnam and several regions of Europe and Russia. Call Value World Tours in Fountain Valley, California, at 800/795-1633, e-mail cruise@vwtours.com or visit www.rivercruises.net.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝CHINA
The individual consciousness — impressive
The collective consciousness — a magnum force ❞
— Randy’s short and sweet summation of his visit to China