China, Tibet & the Yangtze (2019)
- The imperial heritage of China’s capital – Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Peking Duck lunch with afternoon Temple of Heaven visit and Tai Chi class
Delve into the mystique and majesty of China’s imperial legacy today, beginning in Tiananmen Square. The center of contemporary civic life in Beijing, the square was first laid out in 1651 during the reign of the first Qing emperor. Over the centuries the enormous square has been the scene of imperial ceremonies, political demonstrations, parades and, in 2008, the Olympic opening festivities. Now surrounded by Communist monuments, including Mao Zedong’s mausoleum (note the long line of people waiting to get in for a brief glimpse of the Chairman’s remains), it is the gateway to the Forbidden City. Take a moment to pose with your fellow guests for a complimentary group photo to commemorate your visit.
As you pass through Tiananmen Gate, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace, you step into one of Beijing’s treasures, the Forbidden City. For over 500 years the Forbidden City was home to the emperors and empresses of China, a place none could enter without imperial permission (hence its name). But in 1925, it became the Palace Museum—an institution noted for its unparalleled collections of Ming and Qing Dynasty treasures. The UNESCO-designated palace complex, with its temples, pavilions, courtyards and gardens (covering some 100 acres), offers visitors a glimpse into the lives and rituals of China’s imperial families, as well as some of the world’s most outstanding architecture and design.
Relax after your exploration of the Forbidden City with a festive lunch of Beijing’s succulent signature dish, Peking duck. Emperors were the first to enjoy this classic preparation of slow-roasted, crispy-skinned duck; in fact, the first mention of this delicacy dates back to the imperial kitchens in 1330, and it became eponymous with Beijing—or Peking, as it was then known—in the 1450s. After lunch, the Temple of Heaven, the largest and best-preserved Taoist temple in Beijing, is on the agenda. Built in 1420, this breathtaking temple complex was where the emperors of the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty would hold the Heaven Worship Ceremony each year. While you’re there, you’ll have the opportunity to join in on a tai chi class—the ancient Chinese tradition of meditative exercise.
- Culture, history and intrigue—hutongs, teahouse and the Great Wall
Expand your experience of Beijing’s amazing culture with a visit to the hutongs, the historic residential neighborhoods that developed around the Forbidden City during the 15th century. Traditional multigenerational homes built around courtyards line the narrow lanes, along with tiny shops selling everything from luxury goods to everyday necessities. Not only are the sights along these winding streets fascinating, but you’ll get to see them in the most traditional way—via rickshaw. What’s behind the doors of these homes? Find out as you join a local family for a typical Chinese luncheon in their home.
You’ll then be invited to a traditional teahouse in a 600-year-old Ming Dynasty-era Bell Tower. This teahouse boasts a collection of the best tea from each region, which you’ll get to sample when you partake in a traditional tea ceremony.
Though the Great Wall stretches 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) through northern China—for comparison purposes, remember that the United States is about 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) wide—part of it is surprisingly close to Beijing. You’ll head off this afternoon to see the longest man-made structure on Earth. The wall was begun in the third century BC as a way to keep out hostile invaders from the north; it proved so stalwart a defense that generations of warlords and emperors maintained and extended it, although it was never a continuous barrier. The section north of Beijing, on your itinerary for today, dates mostly to the Ming Dynasty. Now that its military purposes are firmly in the past, you may clamber up the steps and take a memorable walk along this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its stone and tamped-earth pathway offers an extraordinarily peaceful and awe-inspiring setting with expansive mountain views.
- Grace and art—Beijing’s Summer Palace and Xi’an’s traditional dumpling banquet
Even emperors suffered in Beijing’s summer heat, so they built a lake just north of the city and then added a series of palaces and pavilions on the banks of that lake (it also provided water for the city), where they could enjoy cool breezes off the water. Over the centuries emperors turned their Summer Palace into one of China’s most beautiful gardens, incorporating elements from myth (the three islands in Kunming Lake represent the three divine mountains in the East Sea), philosophy and other exquisite gardens, including those in Suzhou. Stroll along the Long Corridor, decorated with some 14,000 paintings, and step aboard a small boat to float out onto the serene waters of Kunming Lake. As you take in the views of Longevity Hill, with its temples and pavilions, and the 17-arch bridge, you’ll see a perfect example of Chinese garden design.
Leaving Beijing behind, you will fly south to Xi’an, China’s first capital, home to the Terra-cotta Army—and to one of China’s culinary pleasures.
Your introduction to the ancient capital of China starts with a gustatory encounter with Xi’an’s famous dumplings. Enjoy the delights of a traditional Xi’an dumpling dinner in the city widely considered the home of this savory tidbit. Traditionally reserved for special occasions (perhaps because making them can be so labor-intensive), each little dumpling is a delectable work of art—and, after all, your visit to Xi’an is surely a special occasion, so you deserve every one of the 16 different kinds of dumplings that will be served.
- China’s first capital—Terra-cotta Army and Tang Dynasty dinner show
In 1974 a farmer digging a well stumbled upon one of the 20th century’s most astonishing archaeological finds: a massive army of terra-cotta figures that stand guard over the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC). Though thousands of members of this army have been excavated so far, many more remain; work uncovering the tomb complex continues, with the emperor’s tomb chamber itself yet to be revealed. Terra-cotta acrobats, musicians and officials were also created to accompany the emperor in the afterlife; all are now on display at a museum devoted to this incredible find. Each life-sized figure is unique— no mass production for those ancient craftsmen!—and as you explore the museum, you’ll be amazed by the intricacy of the workmanship. This terra-cotta army was by no means Qin Shi Huang’s only bequest to China: It might be fair to say that he created the nation of China itself. He unified a vast swath of the country and established the administrative systems that governed China until 1911. In fact, he even gave his dynasty’s name to the nation. Qin is pronounced “chin,” and it is from this name that the modern word “China” comes.
End your day with a colorful entertainment that pays tribute to the city’s history. Xi’an reached its apex during the Tang Dynasty, when Tang emperors laid out a city that became a model for Chinese urban development, so the era holds a special place in the hearts of Xi’an’s citizens. A traditional Chinese dinner, complete with a milky rice wine that is served warm, is accompanied by a lavishly staged cultural performance that draws on the music, folk dance and beautiful silk costumes of the Tang era. The performance you’ll see is rooted in early folk celebrations that honored the harvest, and it blends ancient music and movements to visually express the splendor of the Chinese civilization.
- Otherworldly Jokhang Temple and Tibet Museum
Gold-domed Jokhang Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the holiest temple in the holy city, contains the most revered icon of Tibetan Buddhism, a seventh-century statue of Buddha known as the Jowo Shakyamuni. Throughout the day you can see Tibetan pilgrims following the sacred circuit, some prostrating themselves every few feet, that leads to this statue. Inside this beautiful building, which incorporates Indian, Chinese and Nepalese architectural elements, you’ll find restored sculptures (a reminder of the struggles Tibet has endured), ritual paintings on silk called thangka, and 18th- and 19th-century murals. The extraordinary beauty of the place is made all the more ethereal by dramatic views of Potala Palace looming above the temple and the surrounding snowcapped mountains.
You’ll learn more about the history of the region and traditional Tibetan life as you tour the Tibet Museum, which houses a rich collection of prehistoric artifacts, some dating back 50,000 years. The museum is a modern building (it opened in 1999) that fuses traditional Chinese and Tibetan architecture.
- Place of the Gods—Potala Palace and Sera Monastery
Tibetan Buddhism is inextricably associated with Lhasa; the temporal head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism—the Dalai Lama—governed Tibet for 300 years. Potala’s two palaces, the Red and the White, perched 12,100 feet (3,700 meters) above the valley floor, dominate the city just as the Dalai Lama did until the mid-1950s. Originally built in 637, the existing palace— vast and beautifully preserved—dates to the 17th century. Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was the seat of Tibet’s government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lama for centuries. As you wander through its rooms (there are over 1,000), you’ll discover chapels, prayer halls, tombs, altars (where pilgrims still make offerings) and priceless collections of jade, porcelain, silver and paintings.
Founded in 1419, Sera Monastery, located just outside Lhasa at the base of Mt. Phurbuchok, once housed more than 5,000 monks, who traveled from all over Tibet to study at one of the monastery’s three great colleges. The monastery was shut down in 1959 and used for a time as an army barracks, but monks were permitted to return to Sera in the 1980s. They have rebuilt much of the monastery, and today they conduct daily philosophical debates under the watchful eye of Manjushri, the God of Wisdom, in the courtyard of Sera Je Tratsang temple. As you tour the monastery’s numerous temples—each filled with amazing collections of carefully preserved murals and statues of Maitreya, Bodhisattva and Arhat—you may begin to share the mystical sense of peace espoused by the Buddha and his disciples.
- Giant Pandas visit at Chongqing Zoo
Stop at the zoo to see the endangered giant pandas. It’s estimated that only about 1,600 remain in the wild, but thanks to a massive international effort, the panda population is slowly increasing.
- Fuling—816 Underground Project
Venture to the site of the 816 Underground Project, a giant nuclear installation, that the military started constructing in the mountains in the 1960s as the world’s superpowers set off on a nuclear arms race. For years, this top-secret plant remained hidden by dense forests and mountainous landscapes, only having been revealed to the public in recent years. It boasts 17 man-made caves, more than 130 roads and tunnels and an almost 80-meter-high cave where the nuclear reactor was placed. More than 60,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army helped build it, with at least 100 dying in the process. The project was abandoned in a nearly finished state in 1984 before the manufacturing of plutonium-239 began. Following an in-depth preparatory talk on the military, political and cultural background of this time period, guests will explore Cold War history by traveling down into this hollowed-out cave.
Note: The White Crane Ridge Underwater Museum and a local market tour will be offered as an alternative in the event of a closure.
- The magical Shennong Stream
This morning, early-bird tea and coffee are available in the Explorer Bar. Before today’s activities, you can partake in traditional Chinese exercises before savoring an international breakfast buffet. After, climb aboard a sampan—a traditional longboat rowed by expert Tujia boatmen—for a unique ride along the Shennong Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze that flows through some of the most magical scenery in the Three Gorges region. Pristine waters shimmer and bubble between the sheer cliffs and verdant landscapes that rise overhead. Mysterious traces of ancient peoples appear in the cliffs’ façades, including coffins suspended among seemingly unreachable rocks. Many people believe the goddess of the stream created some of the ravishing peaks, which you’ll see from your boat. Does Feifeng Peak look like a phoenix about to drink from the stream’s water? Legend has it that the goddess transformed a golden phoenix into the mountain.
While you ponder these ancient myths, you’ll make your way to a traditional trackers’ village. Here, you’ll get a one-of-a-kind look at life in a rural Chinese community and its denizens’ mud huts, basic kitchens and more.
- Spectacular skyscrapers, famous dim sum and acrobats
Call it the once and future boomtown. Shanghai, China’s one-time window to the West, is once again its commercial capital, and this morning’s tour will take you to some of this engaging city’s most impressive sights. Begin with a ramble through Old Town—the original walled city, where you will find traditional tea houses, temples, narrow alleyways and markets—for a taste of historic Shanghai. When you stroll along the Bund, Shanghai’s famed waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River, you encounter the heart of the old colonial concessions: Buildings here pay tribute to the English, French or German consuls and businessmen who owned them. A plethora of art deco buildings demonstrate why Shanghai was known as the Pearl of the Orient in the 1920s. Today’s Bund features exuberant street life as well as beautiful architecture. It’s also an ideal spot for admiring the views of the Pudong district and its spectacular skyscrapers, among them the tallest building in Asia. What would a visit to Shanghai be without a traditional dim sum lunch? Relax at your hotel over a delectable selection of savory dumplings, steamed buns and rice noodle rolls with a variety of fillings, then go out and explore a little on your own. You might visit Yu Garden, a lovely traditional garden first laid out in 1559, or check out one of the nearby shopping streets for a taste of Shanghai’s famous shopping scene.
After dinner on your own, experience spinning plates, flying knives, and whirling hula-hoops as agile acrobats dance across swaying tightropes and perform death-defying leaps. You’ll be truly dazzled as the famous Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe performs their astonishing, gravity-defying routines.