By Arlene Larsen / Photos by Thor A. Larsen
Ever since a family vacation to Epcot Center in Orlando, we became hooked on the idea of walking on the Great Wall of China. The China Pavilion had you standing in the middle of a movie-in-the-round theater that put you in a helicopter soaring over the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Yangtze River Gorge and all the major sites of this inscrutable nation.
A good friend recommended Pacific Delight Tours out of New York City and we will forever be in her debt. Pacific Delight has a wide array of tours to China from 7 -21 days from basic to as much luxury as one desires. One of the best aspects of Pacific Delight was their willingness to adjust the tour to your specific needs for very little extra money. They provided us with an extra night stay in San Francisco before our long flight to Beijing and an extra day in Beijing before the tour started affording us an opportunity to be totally on our own the first day in this exciting city. You can imagine our ‘delight’ when we learned that there would only be nine people on the tour in a minibus with a private guide at each destination.
Getting around Beijing on your own is no problem once you show the taxi driver the place you want to go (in Chinese characters) in your guide book. The first impressions of Beijing (11 million + residents) with the scale of the road system, over-welcoming traffic, enormous parks and public squares and density of people makes the individual feel very insignificant.
The vastness of Tiananmen Square, (99 acres), populated with several thousand visitors, and in the background, the foreboding picture of Mao at the entrance of the Forbidden City was simply ‘a stunning sight’. As you walk through the gates of the Forbidden City and pass through palace after palace, you can’t help being reminded of the scenes from the movie, ‘The Last Emperor’. The fact that this whole complex has not been disturbed from the last days of the emperor is difficult for Westerners to grasp.
Walking through the grounds of the Emperor’s Temple of Heaven and Park, then, driving out to edge of the city to the Imperial Summer Palace, with its many walkways and gardens on the shores of Kunming Lake, you begin to appreciate the immense power and wealth of the emperor.
What excites most visitors even more than the Forbidden City would be the Great Wall, and it does not disappoint! Dating back to 453 BC, in an effort to stop the warring hoards from invading, a massive wall (25 ft high and 15-30 ft wide) was started and construction continued through centuries. Viewing the wall from one of its tall towers, it resembles an enormous roller coaster ride in either direction as far as the eye can see.
The infamous city of Shanghai that so many writers have described in the past as seedy and dangerous has been transformed into a sleek, state-of-art city. As you stand on the Bund on the edge of Huangpu River, staring over at a whole new addition to the city called Pudong, (which had been a large swamp fifteen years ago); you gape at 21st Century city with incredible modern architecture. It looks like the “emerald city”. Shanghai has the best collection of Chinese artifacts housed in a state-art-museum along with the historically significant, Yu Yuan Gardens with arched bridges, tea pavilions and stone sculptures.
Thor was very thankful for the luxurious four-day cruise on the Yangtze River with its delicious American food and relaxing pace. The cruise ship is a perfect window in which to view daily life of farmers and boat people of the river.
The ancient walled city of Xian was the beginning of the famous ‘Silk Road’, its history, like most places in China goes back thousands of years. It is here that archeologists unearthed the tombs of several emperors to expose the riches and incredible artistic abilities of these talented and tenacious people. In the most famous tomb (Emperor Qin Shi Huang), you stand above the very ground where a farmer first struck a terracotta warrior statue with a plow. Staring down at the vast pit filled with several thousand life- size soldiers, all with different faces, and some with horses and weapons, one simply cannot help to gasp at its enormity.
Guilin is a charming small city, located on the Li River, with many parks, gardens, lakes, and caves filled with Buddhist icons. However, everyone comes to Guilin to take a cruise on the Li River to view its unusual limestone karst hills, made famous by artists who have painted these dreamy landscapes for centuries.
Our stop off in Guangzhou gave us a glimpse of 19th Century Canton. Shamian Island with its broad boulevards with gardens, hotels and cafes overlooking the Pearl River helped recreate the life of the French and British Imperialists, who first occupied this island in the 1800’s.
When you get your first panoramic view of the beautiful city of Hong Kong from the top of the Victoria Peak, you realize that all of the economic statistics you have read about the soaring Chinese wealth have been no exaggeration. The city sits on expansive Repulse Bay on the edge of the South China Sea surrounded by gently rounded mountains. Hong Kong’s modern industry, glamorous condominiums and luxurious hotels, juxtaposed antiquated sampans, crowded ferries and teaming outdoor markets illustrate the rapid growth and transitions being experienced in this dynamic city.
The Pacific Delight tour allowed us to cover a vast section of China and helped us to experience a wide variety of the Chinese way of life, from rice paddy peasants to Shanghai techies in their Guccis and Rolexes. Actually, the only adjectives to describe the trip were exciting and fantastic.