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Home > China: the great unknown

China: the great unknown

05/14/2013 - 11:09

It’s hard to guess what might come up when you mention China these days. It’s a rapidly evolving country undergoing a(nother) cultural revolution. Is it communist or capitalist? Not easy to tell. On one hand you have villagers living much the way they always have, on the other businesspeople driving stylish European cars and moving into American-style suburban houses. 

China is throwing up entire cities at a time and produces many of the hard goods that we consume. Yet it’s still very much an ancient country with complicated social protocols and some rather baffling traditions. Everyone who goes there is both enchanted and daunted, if not repulsed, by some aspects of the culture. The country has been opening up to foreign travel since the 1980s, yet you still don’t have carte blanche to go wherever you want. When it comes to fascinating cultural exploration, China tops the list. 

Here are our three top picks for travel in China. 

Yunnan Explorer
Southern China’s Yunnan Province is widely regarded as the country’s most culturally diverse and scenically spectacular region. Sharing a common border with Vietnam, Laos and Burma, Yunnan is home to many minority groups with origins as varied as their languages and costumes. Many migrated from the mountains of Tibet, while others came from the Muslim regions along the ancient Silk Route. You might be surprised to learn that there are vibrant Muslim communities in Yunnan today, one of which we make a point of visiting. 

The scenery changes dramatically on this ten-day adventure as we move across the province from the dry windswept plains of the Tibetan plateau to the spectacular gorges of the upper Yangtze River. Here, we go on a memorable walk through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Our tour starts in Kunming, a busy city with bustling markets, temples and a strong ethnic minority influence. A half-day walking tour takes us to watch the locals practising taichi in People’s Square, the Flower and Bird Market, and other sights. 

Our next stop is Dali, near the banks of Er Hai Lake with the Cang Shan mountain range forming an impressive backdrop. Go boating on the lake, or catch a chairlift up to visit the monasteries in the mountains behind town. 

After a visit to Lijiang, former capital of the Naxi Kingdom, our private mini-bus takes us past the upper reaches of the Yangtze River where it thunders through Tiger Leaping Gorge, framed by 15,000-foot mountains. In the gorge, a sheer cliff face rises from the raging torrents. We walk in the gorge and stay overnight in local villages such as Ben Di Wan. The facilities here are clean but extremely basic, as we are visiting a remote area frequented only by adventurous travellers. 

Switching gears, we travel to Zhongdian, a town set on a high plateau with a distinctly Tibetan feel. Home to a range of minority groups from western China, it encapsulates what’s best about the region. Glimpse yaks grazing in the alpine and stroll past farmhouses built in the distinctive local style. Our highlight here is a visit to the Songzanlin Monastery, restored since the ravages of the Cultural Revolution and once again a place of homage for Tibetan Lamaism. 

Accommodation: We spend three nights in comfortable hotels and six nights in local guesthouse with a more basic level of accommodation, since tourist-class hotels don’t exist outside of major centers. 

> View full details, dates & prices


Walking the Great Wall
Stepping out across the peaceful semi-ruin of a section of the Great Wall is like walking in the footsteps of the past. If you can get away from the most popular sections of the Wall—as we do on this tour—you’ll have the peace and tranquility required for the kind of daydreaming necessary to recreate the past in your mind. You’ll also get a great sense of the scale and the majesty of this remarkable piece of engineering.

On this tour we trek along contrasting sections of the Wall, both dilapidated and rebuilt stretches. Since the Wall was constructed over a 2000-year period, the new sections are just a continuation of that ongoing building process. This tour involves scrambling up some steep sections of the Wall, and walks of up to seven hours. 

Beijing is no less an attraction on this tour, and we include a full afternoon of sightseeing including the Forbidden City, with its numerous courtyards and temples, Tiananmen Square—the largest square in the world with capacity for over a million people—and the city’s hutongs, or narrow alleys, to see what is left of old Beijing and its traditions.

The first less-visited section of the Wall we visit is located 3 hours from Beijing at Mutian Yu. One of the best-preserved parts of the Great Wall, the Mutian Yu section served as the northern barrier defending the capital and the imperial tombs. It’s massively fortified with 22 watchtowers on a 2,500 yard-long section.

The next section at Jiankou was built in 1368 during the Ming dynasty and constructed of large white rocks, very noticeable from a distance. Thanks to steep mountains, white rock and beautiful scenery, Jiankou is a photographers dream, and is where most photos of the Wall are taken. 

One of the last sections of the Wall that we visit, Taipingzhai, bears mentioning because it’s home to the largest tower of the Great Wall, the ‘Phoenix Tower'. The most unusual feature here is the street of eight diagrams, a labyrinth set up to stop invaders. We also visit the East Qing Tombs and the impressive Sacred Way. The Qing Royalty spent their living summers in Chengde, and it seems that they chose this spot for their 'final' journey. 

There’s more to this tour than the Wall, of course, including Beijing on both ends, great food and interesting accommodation. To get the most out of your tour, book an extra day or two of accommodation at either end.

Accommodation: in Beijing, we stay in a good, tourist class hotel with twin rooms and private facilities. Outside of Beijing the accommodation is basic, as tourist style hotels are non-existent. At the guesthouses/homestays used, basic hot showers are available but water is often erratic.

> View full details, dates & prices


Real Food Adventure – China 
Gastronomy adds another dimension to travel in China. What we think of as Chinese food here in North America often bears little resemblance to what’s served in China. Throughout this massive country there are many distinct cuisines, and it’s our hope that you will be tantalized by a good number of them!

Highlights of this ten-day tour include Beijing’s ancient hutongs where the best street food is to be found, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, Beijing’s Donghuamen Night Market where anything goes, the Great Wall, Xian’s Terracotta Warriors, peppery treats of Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu, a cooking class, a homestay in a beautiful farming village learning about the food grown and country life in China, with the grand finale set in Shanghai, where fresh food markets, an excellent bar culture and a range of amazing architecture await.

Our tour starts in Beijing, a cultural and culinary hotspot. Discover ancient hutongs—networks of narrow streets—and modern architecture, impressive cultural sights and food from all corners of the country. Start out your culinary adventure with Peking duck, beautifully set out in delicate bowls. Wrap up the meat in pancakes and drizzle with sauce, flavor with cucumber and spring onion, and tuck into an imperial dish that has been enjoyed in the region for eight hundred years. 

The next day you can take part in a language lesson, test what you learned buying ingredients in the Sichuan Market, and get ready to make some noise in a cooking class. Enjoy the fruits of your labor, then take a tour around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The next morning we head into Mutianyu, where the spectacular Great Wall of China awaits. Walk along this partially restored section of the Wall – the views from here are unparalleled. Either negotiate the steep stairs or jump on a cable car or toboggan for the trip back down. We are treated to lunch at a rainbow trout farm, where fresh local produce is the centrepiece of the meal, and end the day on an overnight train to Xi’an.

Xi’an is the first stop on the Silk Road, so spices from all over the east had a delicious influence over the region’s cuisine. Here we take in the Terracotta Warriors, life-size statues built to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor in the 210 BC, undiscovered until 1974. Xi’an is known as the snack capital of China, so what better way to discover this than going on a snack crawl! But don’t be distracted—be sure to lunch on Xi’an’s most famous dish, yang rou pao mo, a seasoned mutton stew with unleavened bread crumbled into it.

There are many other wonderful stops on this tour including Chengdu, Jinbo Village and Shanghai, where you can stop into a restaurant to try hairy crab (in season), drunken chicken, spicy braised eggplant and braised pork belly. Buy a live fish at the Tongchuan Lu Shanghai Fish Market and have it cooked up for lunch at a nearby restaurant, and explore Shanghai First Food, a food store that overpowers the senses with the impressive range of foods it stocks. 

Accommodation: We spend three nights in comfortable hotels and six nights in local guesthouse with a more basic level of accommodation, since tourist-class hotels don’t exist outside of major centers. 

> View full details, dates & prices


There is truly too much gastronomy on this tour to describe in so short a space—suffice to say that this tour favors its belly! For more magnificent Chinese travel itineraries, click here


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