Travel Matters Ltd

25th January 2020

China – memorable experiences and cultural contradictions

Another triumph from Karen and her excellent colleagues at Travel Matters and the incredible logistical magic of Wendy Wu and their wonderful local guides. For over three weeks in April/May 2019 the Luboffs travelled across the vast and populated country that is China, with its 1.4bn people, and ended with a few days exploring the sights and buzz of Hong Kong.

We flew into Shanghai, a modern metropolis which is just getting bigger and bigger.

To get a good feel for the city visit the Urban Planning Exhibition hall which has a magnificent model of the entire city – planned out to 2030. We took an evening cruise on the Huangpu River which shows you very clearly – this time in real life – the classic architecture of the Bund facing the almost Blade Runner futuristic buildings of Pudong. So many buildings alight with flashing images – the waterfront panoramic light show financed (substantially) by the government.

Do not miss a trip to the Shanghai Museum – one of the best I have seen in the world in terms of layout, explanation and quality of exhibits. The Buddha statues, the porcelain, the calligraphy are all amazing. You could spend quite a few hours there!

Then on to the Yu Gardens – a tranquil haven in the middle of the busy city. Built by one man for his family as a retreat he had a fascination with a particular type of stone he nicknamed exquisite jade. Plenty of good luck dragons – they do not have wings but a magic ball in their mouth enabling them to fly.

All of our travel was going to be by train – the very fast, very clean, very comfortable and always on time bullet trains. Make sure you go for the soft seats option (they call it first class) but do not bother with the free snack boxes handed out! The Red Cap porters are great – so friendly and helpful and they take you to and collect you from your seats ensuring your luggage is correctly stowed.

So onto Beijing – this has a very different feel to it – the nation’s capital for 600 years containing a multitude of ancient monuments, buildings and treasures to explore.

The Summer Palace is a beautiful royal park crammed full with many buildings where Emperors resided and the Dragon Lady held court. The Long Corridor is certainly long, the lake is shown off by its colourful dragon boats. A relaxing promenade.

Your first sight of the Great Wall confirms what an incredible engineering feat it was in its construction. We were lucky that we almost had the Wall to ourselves – but it can be very crowded so choosing the right time to visit is very important.

It snakes up the hilly landscape as if to say try and breach me if you dare!

You can reach the top of the Wall at Mutianyu by cable car and then toboggan down the spiral slideway (good fun)!

You should not miss a visit to Tiananmen Square although it is not nearly as impressive as Red Square in Moscow – even though apparently it can accommodate 1million people! Apart from the portrait of Mao it really is just a big open space – but of course you cannot help but project onto it the dramatic visual picture and memory of the student standing in front of a tank in June 1989. From there you enter the Forbidden City consisting of an amazing 800 buildings and 10,000 rooms – plenty of gold, lions and secret entrances for the concubines who were escorted to the Emperor’s rooms each evening by the resident eunuchs!

Do not be tempted by a so-called cyclo-rickshaw ride through the Hutongs – it really is very disappointing – drab buildings, little activity, no atmosphere! The Temple of Heaven is a beautiful example of Ming architecture – where the Emperors went to worship once a year for good harvests and to atone for the sins of their people.

Do not leave Beijing without sampling the Peking Duck – we went to the Dadong restaurant, you will not be disappointed. Another train journey this time to Xi’an (“See – An”) to see the famous Army of Terracotta Warriors protecting the tomb of the First Emperor over 2,000 years ago.

An awesome sight, a truly incredible restoration and conservation project, a real Wonder of the World. Just three pits opened up to-date and perhaps another 400 – 500 still to be explored in due course. Will they ever breach the site of the Emperor’s tomb itself to see what is there? Can they protect the finds, are the rivers of mercury real? Almost no figures have been found complete due to collapsing wooden beams used to construct the so-called protective ceilings over them – the putting together of the jigsaws was initially a completely manual process but is now helped by computer technology.

We had arranged to visit and spend the night at the Baoguo Temple up on Mount Emei (“Er-May”). Over 600 years old it is the only temple in China to have its own seven Buddhas – most have the classic three Buddha combo – representing the past, present and the smiling future Buddha. You quite rightly cannot take photos of the Budhhas. This was a really special experience – eating the same vegetarian food as the monks (basically rice and greens), getting up at 5.00am to see the monks at their morning session, breakfast of more rice and pickled vegetables and then a private meditation session with one of the (very intense) young(er) monks. To be highly recommended and one of the real highlights of our trip.

After this we then visited the Wannian Temple – a cable car ride followed by a trek up the mountain to 1,000m in rather treacherous wet conditions and having to watch out for the rather scary and confrontational Tibetan macaque monkeys who know no fear when they are after food and drink off the tourists! Beware and look after your camera!

Next we took a longer bus and cable car trip right to the top of Mount Emei to see the Golden Summit (at 3,000m) and the 10 headed Buddhas stature in solid gold (re-gilded every 5 years). It sits on top of four elephants and is surprisingly (to us) very new as it was only built in 2006. Indeed they are currently building new temples up there – rather bizarre! You might have thought they would have enough by now! The day we went the whole mountain was covered in mist – very magical and mystical if not so good for photos. If you are very lazy you can be taken up and down by a two man sort of rickshaw stretcher contraption  – looks rather scary and uncomfortable!  Buddhists climb all the way to the top stopping at each step to kneel down and blessing the ground – amazing if your knees are up to it of course. A transfer to Leshan where we climbed up the Lingyun mountain to see the Grand Buddha – an incredible statue carved into the river cliff, standing 71 metres tall, completed in 803 AD after 90 years work – the vision of one monk who was not able to actually see the work being carried out. It is worth not only getting close up to it but also taking an evening boat ride to see it lit up at night – be patient it is worth the wait when you get close.

Then onto Chengdu and the Panda Reserve which houses about 60 pandas (including some very rare and intriguing much smaller red pandas). Very well laid out most of the pandas are by themselves but if they are young they will still be with their mother. 

They are incredibly cute and adorable to watch – they eat vast amounts of bamboo, then rest and repeat this process a number of times each day. They clearly dream of bamboo! The panda below looks to me like he is just chilling out wearing a pair of noise reducing headphones!

A short train journey then takes us to Chongqing to embark on our Yangtze River cruise. The Yangtze River (the “Long River”) is the third longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon. We were also amazed to hear that the Chongquing municipality – the size of Austria – has a population of 31million people, the largest municipality in China. We had never heard of it. The city itself is unfortunately a very drab concrete jungle. They call it a cruise but really it is just a glorified boat trip which only becomes exiting and interesting when you eventually go through the Three Gorges – or at least 2 ½ of them as you cannot now go all the way to Shanghai due the Three Gorges Dam – the largest/biggest Dam in the world which took over 19 years to complete and raised the water level by 60ms.

The scenery is indeed breath taking, vertical cliffs rising dramatically from the water.

We did not take advantage of some of the excursions and reports back confirmed that this was a good decision – Fengdu’s Ghost City appears to have been built almost yesterday! The Romance of the Three Kingdoms Show did however get good reviews. Make sure you also take the smaller boat trip option for a trip down one of the smaller tributaries (Goddess Stream) as you can get close to the rock face and fully appreciate the gorgeousness of it all.

After disembarking we then traveled to Guilin via Wuchan and transferred to Yangshuo to our mountain retreat hotel. Located on the Li River the landscape is dominated by the limestone Karst peaks everywhere – very reminsicent of Hulong Bay in Vietnam. A beautiful location and so relaxing to just watch the bamboo rafts drift past whilst we enjoyed our breakfast.

We went to see an amazing show – “Impressions Liu Sanje” – based on the shore of the Li River and taking place out on the water. 2,000 people watching a cast of 600 act out a variety of local cultural stories from the past with dramatic light effects. Worth going to see. 

From Yangshou back to Guilin and then onto Shenzhen and Luhou port for the onward train to Hong Kong for a few days sightseeing and relaxation – staying in the very lovely 5-star Langham Hotel.

What an amazing trip more than living up to our expectations. We were looked after so well by our four main guides who were charming and bright, very knowledgeable and a delight to be with. We felt very safe, very educated and informed and they certainly knew all the short cuts to keep us out of the crowds. 

The highlights were spectacular: – the stay in the Buddhist Temple, the Warriors and the Wall, the Grand Buddha, the splendour of both the Three Gorges and the Karst scenery. The Giant Pandas were also a delight.

Mark Luboff travelled to China with Travel Matters in April 2019. Ask us for more details or drop us a line for more information.

By Karen Simmonds
25th January 2020