Your adventure begins with two quintessential experiences in China’s capital city. 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 experience today, a 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.
Certain images immediately spring to mind when you think of China. Panda bears. Tea houses. The Great Wall. Believe it or not, all three of these are on today’s agenda, as well as a rickshaw ride through the city’s ancient hutongs. Be sure to charge up your camera and get ready to experience some truly epic bucket list moments.
Today’s sights encompass some of China’s most iconic images, from the smiling faces of giant pandas to the massive Great Wall. A stop at the panda habitat at the Beijing Zoo lets you see these charming—and endangered—creatures in a gardenlike setting before you expand your experience of the city’s traditional culture with a visit to the hutongs. These historic residential neighborhoods 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 the winding streets fascinating, but you’ll get to see them in the most traditional way—via rickshaw. You’re in for another taste of tradition as you take a seat at a teahouse and breathe in the delicate aromas of China’s most famous export, savoring a cup of tea presented with graceful 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 to see the longest man-made structure on Earth this afternoon. 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 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, where you’ll celebrate your first night in Xi’an with 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 fly south to Xi’an, China’s first capital, home to the Terra-cotta Army—and to one of China’s culinary delights. Check into your hotel and then savor a traditional Xi’an dumpling banquet. 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 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. Of course you will visit this amazing archaeological find, but your day incorporates two other special Xi’an attractions.
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—and the emperor’s tomb chamber is 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.
Though the museum of the Terra-cotta Army may be Xi’an’s most famous destination, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is its most iconic sight, and it’s also on your agenda for the day. One of the holiest Buddhist temples in China, Big Wild Goose Pagoda was built in the seventh century to house the Buddhist texts the temple’s abbot, Xuanzang, brought back from India, where he spent 16 years collecting them. He and his monks devoted many years to translating those texts into Chinese; their translations are still in use at the temple. Constructed of wood and white brick (all without mortar), the pagoda is an architectural wonder. It is located on the grounds of the still active Temple of Thanksgiving and boasts a park and large plaza where locals sometimes gather to fly kites. Remember to put a few coins in your pocket for this excursion—tradition says that throwing them through the pagoda’s window will bring you good luck. Who wouldn’t want to give it a try?
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.
Transfer to the airport and fly to Chongqing, where you’ll board your ship and settle into your Executive Suite.
Before you leave Xi’an for Chongqing, 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.
Transfer to the airport and fly to Chongqing, where you’ll board your ship and settle into your Executive Suite.
Do you believe in magic? The bright red Shibo Pagoda was originally built into the side of a mountain peak, but that peak became an island after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. Step ashore here to do some exploring, perhaps climbing to the top to ensure that all your dreams come true (or so an ancient legend says).
The capital of western China and one of the largest cities in the country, Chongqing on the upper Yangtze has seen explosive growth in the past half century. Although the city is a major metropolis, the region is chiefly known for its mountains, hot springs and dense forests, which shelter temples, tombs and karst caves.
Relax onboard as the ship cruises from Chongqing towards China’s fabled Three Gorges, stopping en route to visit Shibao Pagoda.
Today will be a highlight of your journey—a full day cruising the Yangtze River’s mystical, beautiful and completely mesmerizing Three Gorges, with scenery that has captivated artists and poets for thousands of years.
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 luxurious ship will show you some of its most beautiful sights. 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.
Limestone cliffs, sheathed in greenery, loom above the water; mountains, wreathed in mist, tower in the distance. Every vista seems to be a traditional Chinese watercolor come to life. Climb aboard a small motorboat and enter a magical landscape 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.
Note: Due to water conditions, we may substitute a Shennong Stream boat tour if the Goddess Stream is not available.
Today, you’ll disembark the ship in Yichang and explore the Three Gorges Dam on foot. Get ready for some spectacular views and the exhilarating roar of rushing water. Known the world over, the dam harnesses the power of the mighty Yangtze in order to provide electricity to ever-growing China; it is the largest hydropower project ever undertaken. Talk of building such a system first began in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1992 that the Chinese congress gave it the go-ahead. It opened in 2006, with the final generators being installed in 2012. The dam is also intended to control flooding on the Yangtze, which has been a severe problem for many centuries. It has not been without controversy, but it is an unparalleled expression of national ambition and a major new national landmark.
After your visit to the dam, you’ll fly to Shanghai, where you’ll settle into your room and relax.
After days of pandas, ancient warriors 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, as well as dim sum and a performance by the gravity-defying Shanghai acrobats.
Nearly 24 million people live in 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? 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.