Economic leviathan. Cultural behemoth. We hear these phrases used to describe China time and again. And of course they hold a lot of weight and truth. With a population of more than 1.3 billion and with some of the largest historic and architectural monuments on the planet, we can’t help but think of the nation as colossal. Indeed, the massive scale of China is what draws so many travelers.
Discovery Tours’ discovery-packed itineraries to China and Tibet embrace the grandiose nature of the region. And thanks to our small group size, we also zoom in on the fine intricacies that reveal the heart and soul of the Chinese. After all, you cannot grasp the epic nature of China without an understanding of the people who call it home, and vice versa.
Huge Country, Huge Cultural Monuments
We tend to think of China’s most gargantuan emblem as an ancient and continuous border fence. But in fact historians talk about “The Great Wall” as a symbolic term for a series of fortress-like ramparts, gullied trenches, and rivers that roughly mark the entire border between China and Inner Mongolia. That’s not to say that the brick and mortar part of the barrier isn’t impressive: by some measurements, the walls built during the Ming dynasty stretch almost 4,000 miles total.
Great walls are only one symbol of the might of Chinese emperors. Naturally, dynasties needed great armies to man its defenses. One emperor in particular—China’s first, Qin Shi Huang—thought it fit to bring his army with him into the afterlife when he was buried in Xian. So he enlisted sculptors to carve a regiment of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses to be buried with him in his mausoleum in 209 BC. It is a breathtaking site, especially since each of these Terra Cotta Warriors was carved individually, as evidenced by their unique features.
A more sweeping complex of tombs—at least geographically speaking—are the Ming Dynasty Tombs. Thirteen Ming emperors are buried here in a mausoleum-dotted green valley outside Beijing, along the southern slopes of Tianshou Mountain. The site was conceived by Zhu Di, Yongle Emperor, around 1420 after construction of the Forbidden City (see below) was completed. Carefully adhering to the principles of feng shui, he chose this sight in order to protect the imperial tombs from the northern winds that were thought to carry evil. The pristine valley is vast and remarkable, covering some 15 square miles and approached by a four-mile road known as the Sacred Way, or “the road leading to heaven.”
Zhu Di is revered as one of China’s most prolific cultural architects. Nowhere is this more evident than in Beijing’s Forbidden City. “Massive” does not begin to describe the size and scope of this compound that was once so cloaked in mystery: it consists of 8,886 rooms within 980 buildings across 7.8 million square feet. It was commissioned by the Yongle Emperor as the Imperial Palace and served as dynastic residence for almost 500 years. Over a 14-year period (1406-1420), more than a million workers gathered phoebe zhennan wood from the southwestern jungles of China, quarried marble from near Beijing (then Peking), and baked golden bricks from material brought in from Suzhou. The palace became known as the Forbidden City because no one was permitted to enter or leave without permission from the emperor.
The Forbidden City overlooks yet another monumental space in China: Tiananmen Square, one of the largest public plazas in world. Not surprisingly, it was completed around the same time as the Imperial Palace. Long a meeting place for the Chinese, it has hosted celebrations and protests and everything in between. It is also a great source of nationalist pride: the Great Hall of the People, National Museum of China, Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the Mao Zedong Mausoleum are all here, each impressive in its own right.
China’s manmade wonders truly make the spirit soar. But perhaps its most inspiring sight was forged by the forces of nature. The Yangtze River is the world’s third longest waterway, coursing some 4,000 miles from the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau into the East China Sea at Shanghai. Surely, the river’s length is remarkable. But more spellbinding are the gorges that it has carved into China’s landscape: Qutang, Wuxia, and Xiling. They make for a dramatic cruise through a fabled landscape that the Chinese hold dear.
It’s the Little Things
From the monumental to the deeply personal, the more modest side of China holds countless treasures that are equally breathtaking. All it takes is a visit with a family in one of Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods, and your heart will be captured by the more intimate side of China that many travelers miss. At first glance, these districts seem little more than alleyways lined with rickety shops. But they hide charming courtyard residences known as siheyuan, where day to day life is lived much as it has been for centuries. Our Discovery Tours group is small enough so that we can join a humble family for lunch. Our visit provides a stark and fascinating contrast to the royal life represented by some many of China’s sprawling monuments.
Shanghai offers its own version of a “workman’s” quarter. The Caoyang New Village is China’s oldest working village. Once a 1950s industrial housing project for workers, today it has evolved into a self-sustaining residential area peppered with businesses, co-ops, cultural and entertainment venues, and green spaces. We’ve arranged a special lunch with a local family here, too, providing firsthand insight into this ever-changing urban landscape. Shanghai’s Yu Yuan Gardens are another great place to mingle with locals. Its five acres of manicured grounds feature ponds, rock gardens, pavilions, bridges, and intimate walkways lined with all manner of lush greenery.
In the Yu Yuan and in other city parks throughout China, you’re liable to spy some locals practicing tai chi. You wouldn’t know it from watching practitioners’ slow-motion hand-chops and graceful lunges, but tai chi is a martial art on par with karate and ju-jitsu. In fact, “tai chi chuan,” from which the art form’s name derives, means “boundless fist.” Despite its origins in combat, the practice benefits balance, flexibility, and cardiovascular health, and has been shown to help those recovering from stroke, Alzheimer’s, and other ailments.
Another common pastime may well enhance brain functions: mahjong. This game of tiles resembles the Western card game of rummy, in that players must form groups of related tiles. Witnessing a game provides a rare glimpse into Chinese history and culture; the game was banned by the Communist party in 1949 as it had a gambling element. It wasn’t until 1985 that the prohibition was lifted. Discovery Tours has arranged a lesson for travelers in an authentic mahjong parlor in Chengdu.
These visits with families in Beijing and Shanghai and invitations to try tai chi and mahjong with seasoned experts give immeasurable insight into the more intimate side of China. And there’s one more resident we visit that’s a crucial part of cultural identity here: the Giant Panda. The Chengdu Panda Research Center is home to more than 80 of these cuddly creatures. Its breeding center—established as deforestation threatens the bears’ existence—ensures that their lifeline stretches far into the future.
Experience it all with Discovery Tours
Magnificent monuments. Charming homes. Enchanting customs. For all its grandiosity, China and neighboring Tibet will win you over. For a comprehensive view of China and Tibet at a small-group value no one else can match, contact Discovery Tours today.
Want to learn more about Tibet? See the accompanying article.