China trips with Pacific Holidays

Dusty and Margi Miller took two trips to China in 2006 with Pacific Holidays (12 West 32nd St., Sixth Fl., New York, NY 10001; 800/355-8025, www.pacific

The first, March 10-22, was to the Yunnan Province in southwest China. The current price of this tour, “Rediscovering Shangri-La,” starts at $2,595 with air from the West Coast.

Next, the Millers combined the “Silk Road Tour,” Aug. 10-22, with the “Gobi and Mongolia” tour, Aug. 23-31, at a combined cost of $12,654 from New York for two people. (In 2007, the 16-day “Silk Road” starts at $4,050 and the 6-day “Gobi & Mongolia” starts at $2,130, each from Los Angeles.)

• Yunnan is China’s southwesternmost province and borders Tibet, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. On our “Rediscovering Shangri-La” tour we were met by Louisa, the first of our several young, articulate and pleasant guides, in Kunming, capital of Yunnan.

At an elevation of 6,000 feet, this city of four million prides itself on its perpetual spring-like climate. We caught it at just the right moment, with azaleas, camellias and flowering trees in bloom.

We noticed the large mosque in town as well as Muslim Chinese cooking mutton on outdoor braziers. A variety of ethnic minority groups walked by, many, particularly the older women, in native costume.

We strolled through the crowded market, which displayed all kinds of interesting foodstuffs. The market street was tree-lined and shady, making it a very pleasant place to stroll. Afterward, we had our first taste of Yunnanese cooking — not quite as spicy as Sichuan and more varied than what we remember in central China.

The Stone Forest, some 60 miles southeast of Kunming, is a large and impressive karst landscape with columns, crevasses and little canyons all threaded by walkways and stairways that are well built and easy to use.

In Dali, on Erhai Lake, we visited the white pagodas, which date from the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-914). Dali’s Old Town dates back 600 years; the authentic buildings now are full of shops and restaurants, and this gives it a lively, human character.

We were charmed by Lijiang, a beautiful city at 8,000 feet. Our hotel, The Grand, was only steps from the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited the Dongba Center of the Naxi people; the Dongba is a spiritual leader. We were invited to write down a phrase, “May the Miller household have a long and happy life,” which the Dongba then wrote for us in their pictograph script.

We walked down 1,000 stairs at Tiger Leaping Gorge to see the narrow canyon through which the roaring water of the Yangtze flows. Then, in Zhongdian (or Shangri-La), we spent a day visiting the 17th-century Songzanlin monastery, looking like a small Potala Palace.

We ended the tour in Hong Kong, where our hotel, the YMCA Salisbury, right on Kowloon Harbor, has the same great view as the Peninsula Hotel next door but for a fifth of the price!

• On our “Silk Road” and “Gobi & Mongolia” tours, our first guide, Xing, was a pleasant young man and a good guide. In fact, on this trip we had three good guides and two exceptional ones.

Traveling as we do, picking up a guide at each airport and staying with them until they put us on a flight to our next destination, requires that our guides be good English speakers as well as knowledgeable and companionable. On these back-to-back tours our guides were all of these.

We tended to bond as a little family, particularly in the more remote parts where there was less formality. The guides and drivers often ate with us, and we got to know each other quite well, having long and free-ranging give-and-take conversations so that we were both learning quite a bit about our respective cultures. That is really part of the fun of traveling this way.

Our meals on this trip were the best ever in China. There was a great deal of variety because we were traveling through such different ethnic areas.

At the first Yellow River Dam, built 50 years ago, we boarded a fast motorboat on Liujiaxia Lake for quite a bumpy ride of 35 miles up to the Binglingsi Caves, situated in a lovely mountain area. The small caves house 1,000 statues, of Buddha, gods and the four fierce guardian kings, many in excellent condition. Some caves still have colorful frescoes on the walls and ceilings. The biggest attraction was a 27-meter-high Buddha.

Off we flew to the Gobi Desert, where we drove off to some sand dunes, rode camels up to near the top and then climbed some steps for great views. We descended by way of a wooden sled and rejoined the camels, who conveyed us to Crescent Lake, a little oasis with a temple.

The Mogao Grottoes are large caves carved into a cliff face which has been covered with rough stucco aggregate. Stairs and elevated walkways allow one to access the many locations. Cameras are not permitted in the caves.

A local guide took us through to see impressive ceiling and wall frescoes and some statuary. All were protected from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution by the locals and are remarkably well preserved for their age, some going back more than 1,000 years. One cave we visited was the library, where over 50,000 manuscripts were discovered early last century. We liked best of all a reclining Buddha carved in one piece and surrounded by 72 disciples, life-size and all with different faces.

We then drove north on the national route to Liuyuan, a scruffy little railroad town, and boarded the train for Turpan. After getting through security, our guide Steven helped us find our coach and compartment. The cheaper class had six beds; ours had four. We were going to share it with an Italian couple; instead, a young Japanese fellow joined us, a very pleasant companion for the night.

The train was fast and smooth for the 9-hour, 450-mile trip, though we didn’t sleep too soundly. In Turpan we were met by Akram, one of our exceptional guides. Turpan is below sea level and can get to well over 100 degrees. When we were there, it was in the high 90s — good for the many vineyards and melon fields.

Akram took us to the ruins of Gaochang, which date from the second century B.C. Once the capital, it has remnants of walls, homes and temples.

Urumqi turned out to be our favorite city with its parks, lively ethnic population and cool climate. Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang Province, an autonomous Uygur region. Uygurs are Muslims and are not Chinese but Central Asian.

In Mongolia we took an Aero Mongolia turboprop flight to Dalanzadgad, landing on a gravel runway, then drove a few kilometers to Tovshin Camp 1, where we checked into our ger (yurt). It was very comfortable and spacious, with two beds, dressers, rugs and a stove, if needed. Western-style bathrooms and showers were in a building a short walk away, as was the restaurant.

We stretched our legs with a walk up the road. Absolute silence here — just the sound of the wind! This is “big sky” country, with no trees. In the evening the stars were brilliant and we could see the Milky Way.

In Karakorum the sight to see is the Erdene Zuu Monastery, which is an amazing place of 108 stupas set along 1,400-foot-long walls on each side of a square. Inside are a number of Chinese-style temples and one very distinctively Tibetan one containing statues and frescoes. We had a very informative local guide for this.

It was a wonderful trip.


Worcester, MA