By Eleanor Berman
Visiting China and not traveling beyond the big cities would be missing some of the best of this amazing country. A few highlights:
Xian has one of the incredible sights, the army of thousands of life-size terra cotta warriors that have silently guarded the underground tomb of emperor Quin Shi Hunagdi since the third century BC. They stand almost six feet high and are etched in great detail, no two faces alike, modeled after actual soldiers of the time. The first battalions were discovered in 1974 by a shocked farmer digging for a well, 1000 soldiers plus horses and carriages, in four columns, ready for battle. They were left in place and covered with a roof in the building now known as Pit 1. Excavations are ongoing, and in the last 20 years two new buildings have been added. One includes a mini-museum with several of the finest figures in well lit cases for close-up viewing. So far over 6000 soldiers have been found.
Xian has fascinating lesser known lures, as well. The Wild Goose Pagoda and its gardens were built in 652 AD to house Buddhist treasures, including handsome golden Buddhas. The Great Mosque is the largest and best preserved of the country’s early mosques, a series of courtyards and pavilions blending Chinese and traditional mosque architecture. It is located in the city’s busy Muslim Quarter, where the narrow market streets are lined with vendors preparing exotic foods.
Guilin and Yangshuo
The landscape of dreamy, misty limlestone or “karst” mountain peaks seen on so many Chinese scrolls is found in Guilin, and best seen on a half-day cruise on the Li River. The boats dock in Yangshuo, a small town completely surrounded by these unusual formations. The influx of visitors has turned the town’s main street into a string of souvenir stalls, and most groups spend an hour shopping and return to Guilin. But we stayed overnight, an evening with ample rewards.
An unforgettable show takes place each night in an outdoor arena on a lake in Yangshuo, surrounded by the dimly lit mountains. The Liu Sanjie or “water impressions show,” done entirely on rafts, was choreographed by ZhangYimou, who did the memorable opening of the 2008 Olympics. The 600 participants are all local, mostly from the Zhuang and Yao minority groups, specially trained for their parts. They portray fishing, harvesting and other occasions of everyday life in spectacular fashion, with waves of hundreds of red banners, golden lights or torches flickering across the water.
We met members of the Yhuang, Yao and Yi minorities again on a day trip from Guilin to Long Sheng, where they live in attractive houses made of bamboo and grow rice on terraces cut into the mountain side. The rice, ready for harvesting in the fall, formed rows of gold scaling the mountain, a lovely picture. While urban China goes high rise and modern, the way of life of these groups is little changed with time, with a few exceptions. A few cafes are found along the steep path that visitors travel up the hillside. And while the traditional costumes remain much the same, some of the younger women have traded their traditional footwear for sneakers.
IF YOU GO
Because China is so huge, requiring several flights to see the important sights, and because so few people speak English, the easiest and most practical way to go for many travelers is with a tour. Typically, tours include Beijing, Shanghai, and the smaller cities of Xian and Guilin; better tours also take you into the countryside to places like Yangshuo and Long Sheng.
I was invited by a company called China Spree, a tour worth noting because it so wonderfully lived up to the company’s improbable slogan, “first class travel at bargain prices.” The cost of the 14-day China’s Best Treasures Tour price at peak mid-September was $3400 and that included international air fare, four internal flights, modern buses, excellent guides, and good food, always including the local specialties, from peiking duck to hand-pulled noodles to Shanghai soup dumplings. The hotels were not “budget” at all, mostly Marriotts and Sheratons with spacious rooms, full amenities and American breakfast buffets. We had many extras, including lunch in a hutong home in Beijing, a hands-on Chinese cooking lesson, a day trip from Shanghai to Suzhou, home of canals and magnificent ancient gardens, and evening shows including dancers in Tang Dynasty costume in Xian and the amazing Shanghai Acrobats. The tour exceeded my expectations in every way.
Eleanor Berman, a New York freelance writer and award-winning author of a dozen travel guides, has covered 82 countries and all 7 continents. She has written for many national publications, including Travel & Leisure, Ladies’ Home Journal, Diversion, Robb Report, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Denver Post, Miami Herald, and the New York Daily News. Among her guide book awards are a Lowell Thomas award for Traveling Solo, Thomas Cook Book of the Year for Eyewitness Guide to New York, and Independent Publishers IPPY award, best guide of the year, for New York Neighborhoods.