Our 30-day odyssey across China exceeded our expectations as we hiked, biked, flew, cruised and ate our way across 14 cities from June 20-July 20. Here, in reverse order, are the top 10 of oh-so-many amazing experiences.
No. 10: Shanghai Disney’s Pirates of Caribbean ride and Star Wars pavilion
Disney’s newest park was just three weeks old when we went July 11 on a drizzly Monday. We expected sophisticated effects and were blown away by the Pirates ride although we were surprised by the lame last animatronic view of Jack Sparrow.
Apparently Chinese aren’t familiar with Star Wars (we were appalled when one young teen had never heard of it), so we had our run of the pavilion and photo ops with Darth, R2D2, Kylo Ren, and the Millennium Falcon.
Overall, we would rate the park a B minus at this point. Bonus points for having dim sum!
Note: The Shanghai metro is great but does not run around the clock. In fact, the last train leaves Disney around 10:30–and you have to make sure your connections are still running, too!
No. 9: Hong Kong
Perfect entry point into China. Fascinating mix of East and West, wealth and poverty, high tech and ancient culture. We stayed at the Salisbury YMCA on the Kowloon side, which was next to the Peninsula Hotel (same views for half the price) and blocks from lots of fun activity and dining (see the next highlight). Great metro system; easy to get around, which we did extensively to dine, hike and explore my family roots (see No. 7).
No. 8: Dim sum, shaved ice and hot pot
We had planned to gorge on dim sum and did. (See my dim sum report.) But we were thrilled to discover luscious Taiwanese shaved ice in Hong Kong at the Dessert Kitchen, where we went three of four nights (and then later chased down in other cities), and the fun of hot pots, especially the noodle dancer and fabulous service at Haidilao in Xi’an. Do not miss!
(By the way, for all of you who expected us to waddle back: there was a lot of inedible food as well, especially on the Yangtze cruise and Huangshan.)
No. 7: Family heritage discovery
The impetus for the trip was to trace my family roots and the heritage journey was fascinating and fulfilling. In Hong Kong, Taishan and Guangzhou, we found places I had lived as a child before immigrating to America, and connected with relatives living in the home built by my grandfather in which my mother had grown up.
Perhaps the most memorable experience was the “Bai San” rituals to pay respects to our ancestors. We trudged through the wild hillside loaded down with a whole pig, geese, wine, eggs, cakes, fake money and firecrackers to honor my great-grandparents, my uncle and others. They were in three locations so everything had to be packed up and transported three times. See my full heritage journey here.
No. 6: Biking Xi’an’s ancient wall and performing our own imperial opera
We loved Xi’an, which was the epicenter of China for many years and where the silk road started. In addition to being the home of the terracotta soldiers (see No. 2 below), Xi’an has one of the most complete and well preserved city walls in China, begun in 1370. We biked all 8.7 wobbly miles of pavement with old town on one side and modern skyscrapers on the other, taking an entertaining commercial break to fulfill my desire to capture mother and daughter in imperial garb. (Thanks, Regan!)
No. 5: Lijiang Leaping Tiger Gorge hike and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
I had chosen Lijiang for its old town, which is WAY too commercialized now. But it turned into a highlight, literally, as we got close to glaciers at 15,000 feet on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and hiked in Shangri La at the Leaping Tiger Gorge across the Yangtze River. Each is a day-long outing and well worthwhile for the views and crisp air, especially in contrast to the oppressive heat in most of the country. Be prepared for extremely long lines at Jade Mountain just to get onto the bus, then again once you get to the cable car.
No. 4: Rice terraces in Longji, outside Guilin
We hadn’t been able to fit this into our original itinerary, but Jenny, our terrific tour guide (the best of eight we had through China Highlights) helped rearrange our schedule to get us to the Dragon Backbone’s Rice Terraces.
Wow! This region 60 miles from Guilin is home to the Zhuang, the largest ethnic minority in China, whose lifestyles haven’t changed a whole lot since the terraces were built some 650 years ago.
The captivating fields of lush rice stalks rising from the Jinsha river to the mountain top were strikingly poignant, especially when you saw natives tending the precious crop as they have for centuries.
No. 3: Panda handling in Chengdu
Chengdu is the panda hub of China and features three major bases: the Chengdu Panda Breeding base, the Dujiangyan Panda Base, and, further out, the Bifengxia Panda Base. The only one now offering a “volunteer” program that allows personal interaction is at Dujiangyan – you can pay $205 U.S. to be panda handlers for the day and/or $300 U.S. to take a picture with a panda sitting next to you for a few minutes while you’re in protective garb.
We opted to be handlers, which meant we cleaned out cages, poop and all, and got to feed darling 3-year-old WuWen three times! The official keeper gave us high marks as some volunteers didn’t really expect or want to get down and dirty. And we got plenty of great photos with WuWen albeit with a cage between us.
My major planning flaw was not going to the Breeding Base as well in order to see the babies.
No. 2: Terracotta warriors in Xi’an
Farmer Yang Zhifa and others were digging a well in 1974 when they found pieces of terracotta, which turned out to be the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, filled with some 8,000 life-sized soldiers, horses and chariots–each uniquely detailed. His entire funeral complex stretches 20 square miles, and that vision is what makes this site so impressive.
You start at the humongous “pit no. 1,” pushing your way through the throngs to the front to see an astonishing military lineup. About 2,000 figures are displayed, including many in various stages of repair (rice water is allegedly the primary glue). Two other smaller pits are somewhat excavated, and they reportedly haven’t touched the actual tomb yet until they can figure out how to ensure they preserve it.
By the way: farmer Yang still comes by the visitor center now and then to sign autographs. He received $30 yuan for his initial find, which was triple the annual rural income back then (it’s about $4.50 U.S. today).
And the No. 1 highlight: The Great Wall at Jinshanling outside of Beijing
This was on July 18, our third to last day in China, and what a wondrous finish it was.
The Great Wall, originally several walls unified by Emperor Qin (see terracottas above!), is 2,300 years old and stretches 13,000 miles. Most tourists head for the section most restored and convenient to Beijing, Badaling, which hosts some 70,000 visitors a day. (See pix.)
We chose the more rugged, steeper, less crowded section at Jinshanling, which was a two-hour drive from Beijing (one hour less than anticipated). We took a slow cable car part way, hiked up and down to the highest watch tower across precariously steep steps and pitches, then returned via an easy man-made path. And we saw maybe 75 other tourists.
The Jinshanling portion is about 7 miles long with 67 watchtowers, five passes and three beacon towers (Wikipedea), just a fraction of the entire wall.
At every turn, we stopped to gawk. The history. Boldness. Resolve. Enduring symbol of man’s capabilities. Great indeed. This is China in its glory.
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