Your adventure begins with two quintessential experiences in China’s capital of Beijing. Off limits to commoners for 500 years, the Forbidden City was once considered the cosmic center of the universe (and for good reason, as you’ll see for yourself). Peking Duck is another cultural gem you’ll get to experience today, a complex dish originally prepared for Chinese emperors.
The political and cultural capital of China and home to more than 20 million people, Beijing exemplifies everything visitors find most intoxicating about China: Spectacular ancient monuments contrast with ambitious modern high-rises, and traditional crafts flourish alongside booming international businesses. Exquisite art, stunning UNESCO sites, serene parks and teeming streets all contribute to the unique flavor of this astonishing city.
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.
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.
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.
Leave the hustle and bustle of Beijing behind today and head north to the serenity of the Summer Palace, home to one of China’s most beautiful classical gardens. From there, plunge into the past in China’s first capital, Xi’an, where you’ll be treated to a traditional (and incredibly labor intensive) dumpling banquet.
You have one more special excursion to enjoy in Beijing this morning, then you’ll fly to Xi’an for the next leg of your Chinese adventure.
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.
Xi’an’s famous terra-cotta army has been called the 8th wonder of the world, and it’s certainly the most extraordinary archeological find of the 20th century. Prepare to be amazed! You’ll also visit one of the holiest Buddhist temples in China and enjoy a traditional Tang Dynasty dinner show with fabulous food, music and flamboyant costumes.
The imperial capital for 10 ancient dynasties, Xi’an achieved its greatest renown under the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when it was a great international metropolis and the eastern terminus of the legendary Silk Road. Today it is the capital of Shaanxi Province and most famous for a museum devoted to the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses.
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.
Before you catch your flight to Hangzhou, you have one more expedition: a visit to the Jade Carving Center, or Jade Factory, as it’s also known. Jade has been cherished in China for 10,000 years; it is valued for its intrinsic beauty, of course, but it also has tremendous symbolic meaning. Watch artisans carving intricate designs and learn what to look for when buying this special stone.
An ancient capital that grew up around its lake, Hangzhou’s historic beauty and prosperity owed something to famous poets—not because they celebrated its beauty but because they were good governors who nourished the city’s success. Marco Polo called it the greatest city he had ever seen. These days Hangzhou is still a prosperous city in a lovely setting; West Lake is its most famous scenic treasure but by no means the only sight worth seeing. You’ll arrive in time to stroll through the area around your hotel, the Shangri-La Hangzhou, taking in some of the sights.
After days of iconic sites and timeless Chinese landscapes, Shanghai and its futuristic skyline can be something of a shock to the system. Yet beyond the building boom and the avant-garde architecture, you can still find traces of Shanghai’s colorful and fascinating colonial-era history. Enjoy a taste of both old and new today, including the city’s famous delicacy, dim sum.
Today you’ll head to Shanghai, China’s largest city. An international economic hub, it has drawn entrepreneurs from all over the world for 150 years. But while Shanghai may be the “city of the future,” you can still find remnants of its history in Old Town and the area known as the Concessions, which were controlled by European interests in the 19th century.
Call it the once and future boomtown. Shanghai, China’s onetime 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? Follow your tour with a delectable meal of savory dumplings, steamed buns and rice noodle rolls with a variety of fillings.
Today you have the luxury of an entire day to explore Shanghai however you wish. Tonight, experience yet another cultural highlight of your journey—a thrilling performance by the dazzling and gravity-defying Shanghai Acrobats.
Spend the day exploring Shanghai on your own. If you have a taste for heights, step out onto the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower’s glass-floored observation deck— some 1,100 feet above the Pudong district. Browse through the shops on Nanjing Road or see what China’s modern artists are creating at the China Art Museum.
The Three Gorges Dam was a hugely expensive and controversial undertaking, a project that involved relocating entire villages threatened by the rising waters of the Yangtze. The dam itself is an engineering marvel that you can see from a breathtakingly up-close perspective today.
The Yangtze is the third-longest river in the world (only the Nile and the Amazon are longer), and the days you spend onboard your ship will show you some of its most beautiful sights. Limestone cliffs, sheathed in greenery, loom above the water; mountains, wreathed in mist, tower in the distance. The river itself, deep and powerful, busy and serene, will work its enchantment as it carries you past bucolic fishing villages, hillside rice paddies, ancient cliff carvings and historic temples. Relax and prepare to be dazzled.
Climb aboard a small motorboat and enter a magical landscape today as you drift quietly along the Goddess Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze that flows through some of the most extraordinary scenery in the Three Gorges region. Pristine turquoise waters shimmer and bubble between the sheer cliffs that rise high overhead. Mysterious traces of ancient peoples appear in the cliff faces, including coffins suspended among seemingly unreachable rocks. There are those who believe the goddess of the stream created some of the ravishing peaks you can see from your boat: Does Feifeng Peak look to you like a phoenix about to drink from the stream’s waters? Legend says that the goddess transformed a golden phoenix into the mountain. Whether you recognize a similarity or not, there’s no denying the enchantment of this region.
You’ll return to your cruise ship later in the day and continue sailing along the Yangtze, where you’ll float through a landscape that is straight out of a Chinese watercolor painting.
Visitors have been seeing all sorts of fantastic things in Reed Flute Cave ever since the Tang Dynasty. What do the cave’s curiously shaped limestone formations look like to you? There’s only one way to find out…
Disembark in the busy port of Chongqing, where you’ll hop on your flight to Guilin.
The landscapes of the Li River look like a Chinese scroll painting come to life, with its conical limestone karsts, mist-shrouded mountain peaks, terraced rice paddies, grazing water buffalo and fishing villages seemingly frozen in time. You’ll see all this and more on today’s scenic cruise to Yangshuo, a popular destination for hikers and cyclists.
Poets have long paid tribute to Guilin’s extraordinary natural beauty, but terraced hillsides growing rice and tea reveal additional riches; you will have a chance to explore both aspects of this remarkable landscape during your stay.
Astonishing conical peaks jut above the serene waters as your boat floats down the meandering Li River toward Yangshuo. Chinese poets and painters have celebrated these mist-wreathed peaks, all that remains of an ancient sea bed, for centuries. Quaint villages, fishermen plying the water in tiny boats and grazing water buffalo will make you feel that time has stood still in this enchanted place, a world away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Once you reach Yangshuo, you’ll experience a town that has been a leading economic and cultural center since the Tang Dynasty and is now a popular destination for adventure travelers seeking to hike, bike or climb the nearby peaks.
How could you leave mainland China without experiencing two of its most famous natural phenomena? You’ve seen them everywhere on your journey—cups filled with pale, delicately scented tea—and have probably sipped your share. It’s the most commonly consumed liquid on the planet after water. Today, you’ll see just where China’s iconic beverage comes from as you visit a tea plantation that dates back 400 years, when tea was grown there for Ming emperors. Terraced rows of compact shrubs carpet the hillsides; you may even have a chance to see workers harvesting and sorting the leaves the traditional way— by hand.
Your day also includes a stop at the Seven Star Park, a huge and beautiful park much loved by locals that happens to be home to a pair of giant pandas, as well as red pandas and other fauna.
Following your visit, you’ll catch your flight to Hong Kong, China’s most dynamic city.
Hong Kong presents a dizzying juxtaposition of East and West, ancient and modern. This bustling, glittering, multicultural city is famous for its soaring skyscrapers, fabulous shopping, Star ferries crisscrossing Victoria Harbor and the lingering traces of its British colonial past.
This vertical city, with its hundred-story skyscrapers clinging to the shore of the deep harbor that first attracted international merchants, blends East and West, modern and ancient, in truly unique ways.
Reunited with China in 1997 after years of British rule, dynamic Hong Kong reinvents itself constantly. A commercial center that attracts entrepreneurs from all over the world, a shopping mecca offering everything from Gucci handbags and custom tailoring to disposable cell phones, Hong Kong never sleeps. Take a trip to Victoria Peak, the “Mountain of Great Peace,” featuring the world’s steepest funicular railway, to get a not-to-be missed panoramic view of the city’s glittering skyscrapers, colonial buildings and romantic harbor. Then ramble through the Aberdeen Fishing Village on the south side of the island for a look at Hong Kong’s traditional fishing life, which still survives there.
Your tour also includes a nearby gem factory, where you can see artisans at work creating jewelry, and a stop at Stanley Market, the bustling street market long renowned for its excellent bargains.