China 2017

Our 2017 China tour was one of our best trips EVER. Sinorama's 20 day Panorama of China offering turned out to be a true bargain; it provided more "bang for the buck" than we've had in a while. The accommodations were all top notch, on par with the best hotels on the Strip. The strange thing about Chinese hotels is the presence of a gas mask or two in each room and the availability of an Emergency Kit for a small extra charge. All meals were included; breakfast was usually in the hotel, lunch and dinner with our group at tables for 8 around a lazy susan. Our guide spoke good English and did a great job of keeping the 26 people of our group in check (sometimes recruiting help as necessary). We found the Chinese people to be very friendly. Patty and I both had people ask to have their picture taken with us. Few of the Chinese people speak English but the guide told us to "just find a young woman wearing glasses if you need to ask directions".

We covered a lot of ground on the tour: 2,700 air miles on 4 in-country flights, 375 river boat miles on a 4-day cruise, 180 miles in a hi-speed train, 30 miles via hydrofoil ferry, and several hundred miles on various buses that shuttled us everywhere. In addition we utilized a wide array of transportation options in Hong Kong: subway, harbor ferry, taxi, and funicular. Boarding planes, trains, or ferries in China is a a nightmare because of the crowds. People don't cue up in lines, they just form up and go.

Our tour began in Beijing, a city of 21 million people. Maybe they only showed us only what the government wanted us to see, but our impression of China's cities was that they appeared to be very clean and modern with high rises everywhere. All of the big cities were extremely smoggy. The Beijing freeway system is extensive but clogged to a standstill by traffic at all hours. Our guide claimed that there were zero cars in Beijing until the "Cultural Revolution" ended in 1990.

A visit to the Temple of Heaven was our first look at Ancient China. It is a religious complex (Taoism) that was constructed during the early 1400's. The grounds consist of a central pagoda, a few open air buildings, and a lot of empty space. The walkways leading to the shrine's center were crowded with locals gambling with cards or all kinds of tile games.

Lunch that day was in the crowded private home of a local family in Hutong. They live in an older part of town which we accessed via rickshaw. There were 4 small homes in the alleyway, all sharing a common bathroom. And, while we're on the subject of bathroom facilities, be aware that the "squat toilet" was the only type available outside of the major hotels. Our guide claimed that a "toilet revolution" was in process, though it is not necessarily supported by the population who feel obligated to stand rather than sit on the seat of a western style toilet.

Our next stop was the walled Forbidden City. It occupies a lot of land area (180 acres) right in the center of Beijing. It too was constructed in the early 1400's as the palace of the ruling dynasties until 1912. We saw at least 3 major building complexes surrounded by huge open plazas. Most of the buildings were decorated with intricate roof carvings. Tiananmen Square is just outside the walls. It too is a huge expanse of open space (large enough for a guy to face off against a line of tanks!).

The next day we visited a near vertical section of the Great Wall. There were 12 "levels" climbing the hill with unevenly spaced but obviously rebuilt and well maintained steps. As you might expect, the lower 2 or 3 levels were crowded. But the higher we went the thinner the crowd got, until there were only 2 of us passing station number 11. The Great Wall was everything I had imagined. It was beautiful, it seemed to go on forever, and hiking this particular section of it was more challenging than expected. I would love to go back and hike more of it.

From Beijing we flew to Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Army. Xi'an is a "small" town of 9 million people that was once the capital of China. This ancient "army" was created in 210 BC but not discovered until 1974 by a farmer digging a well. I asked what reward he received and was told that everyone shared equally under the communist system at that time. There are 3 separate pits containing approximately 8,000 life-size armed warriors along with their related horses and chariots. I understand that all of the statues were initially found broken and in pieces, but many have now been meticulously reassembled. Displays are provided for the assembled figures as well as those in the jumbled condition in which they were found.

From Xi'an we flew to Wuhan, then bussed to Jingzhou to begin a 4 day cruise on the Yangtze river. We had a very disappointing European river trip last year and this one more than made up for it in terms of natural beauty and customer experience. The 375 river miles we traveled were all interesting. From deep gorges that far outshined the Danube river's "Iron Gate" to the gigantic 3 Gorges Dam that took 5 hours to lock through.

The ship had massage, acupuncture and cupping services available. Patty and the other ladies on our tour delighted in negotiating group discounts. It was fun listening to them compare notes at the dinner table each night.

The "water people" tribe live in one of the more spectacular side canyons of the Yangtze. The residents staff it to show a typical mountain village in old China. They pose as fishermen using cormorant birds with rings around their neck to keep them from swallowing the fish that they catch. Others pretend to be washing clothes on the side of the creek or strike a pose on top of a scenic foot bridge. There are old time bamboo water wheels, wild monkeys, and scenic waterfalls that add to the ambiance. We walked the trails in a light drizzling rain that really added to the surreal feeling. This was the "old" China we were hoping to see!

Although most of the river's route took us through deserted canyons and fog shrouded hills, it also passed several old villages and a few modern-looking cities. One major bridge we crossed under was wired for an animated display much like the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas. The high rise condo trend that we saw in the big cities applied to many smaller ones as well. At least one unnamed city that we saw along the river had those brand new high rise condos all along the shore but people were still doing their laundry on the river bank!

At one point we disembarked the ship for a tour of the Red Pagoda. There is a 660' high rock outcropping that forms an island in the river. In 1819 the monks built a 12-story Pagoda climbing the side of the rock to provide access to a shrine on top. Periodic flooding of the Yangtze river was severely eroding the structure so a concrete wall was erected in the 1950's to surround the entire island with a 20 foot high wall. A "drunken" bridge connects the island with the shore. It is one of those suspended walkways that bounces and rocks every time you take a step.

Our river cruise ended in Chongqing, China's largest and fastest growing city with 49 million people. Our guide told us that the city has more than 1,300 buildings higher than 10 stories, where there were zero of that size before 1990. The vast majority of high rise buildings are condos. The units are sold as empty concrete spaces. The new owner must install the interior walls, plumbing, and electrical at additional cost (after, of course, consulting with a feng-shui designer). They also have very limited parking so the (too few) assigned spaces sell for a sizable additional cost as well.

The main tourist attraction in Chongqing is their beautiful and well appointed zoo which is home to no less than 11 pandas and other exotic animals. The pandas are housed in individual pits that allow open and up-close viewing of these cute and cuddly looking creatures. Several of them were very active during our visit, although that activity consisted entirely of them munching on their bamboo shoots.

From Chongqing we flew to Shanghai, a city of 24 million people. This city was probably the newest looking of the large population centers. Each of the high rise buildings had a unique and unusual design. We were told that condos near the city center sold in the 250K to 350K range in US $, and that's before the required interior construction. We toured the extremely well done Shanghai museum and visited the famous Nanjing Road shopping district. Can you say "wall to wall people"?

In the evening we attended an acrobatics show. Those Chinese acrobats are phenomenal. We've seen them perform in Las Vegas shows, but viewing their performance from front-row-center rather than high in the bleachers was a real treat. My favorite was the motorcycles looping each other inside a steel mesh ball.

The next morning we were on a flight to Guilin, a "small" town with less than 5 million people and unusually clean air Everything we saw in the city appeared to be brand new. Our hotel fronted on a large lake with beautiful walking paths all around it and large open air and underground shopping areas to explore. There were twin pagodas on the far side of the lake that looked absolutely beautiful lit up at night. This was our favorite city by far.

Our first tour in Guilin was to a tea plantation that has been operating since the 19th century. They gave us baskets to collect tea leaves but we thought they looked better as coolie hats. Bob even put an extra spin on his. It was interesting to see the how many steps are involved in manually preparing the leaves for consumption.

The countryside around Guilin is covered with those beautiful limestone formations that resemble what we call "sea stacks" along the Oregon coast. The scenery along the road between Guilin and Yangshuo was breathtaking. We were disappointed that the bus never pulled over to let us fully enjoy it. Yangshuo, a small village out in the country surrounded by tiny farms. The village had narrow streets, strange people, and locally handcrafted items for sale. We loaded into small 4-person boats and cruised a few miles down the Li river. Disappointingly, the scenery along the river did not measure up to what we had seen for mile upon mile from the bus window.

The next morning we boarded a high speed train to Guangzhou. It was smooth, fast, and very clean. The train's current speed was displayed in each car and hovered around the 250 kilometer mark (about 160 mph). The scenery along the way was mostly small farms and a few tiny villages with their own high rise condos (or the farmers?).

There we boarded a fast hydrofoil ferry to the gambling capital of Macau. Once we arrived we had to pass through customs because Macau is one of the "special administrative regions" and is not considered part of "mainland" China. We were dropped off at a casino for a few hours. It was just like the Las Vegas strip EXCEPT that the 100 or so Blackjack tables were replaced by Baccarat tables. Macau was originally a Portuguese colony and we recognized the mosaic style of street paving from previous visits to Lisbon & the Azores.

Back through customs again and into the old British colony that includes Hong Kong. We got out of a left hand drive bus and boarded a right hand drive one to begin driving on the "wrong side" of the road. The Sinorama tour officially ended when they dropped us off at our hotel in Kowloon (for our room on the 50th floor). Here we had to buy our first non-included meal of the trip. We ate in a KFC but wondered about the rubber gloves that came with the meal!

To explore the city we bought an all-day subway pass and set out on our own. The subway system was extensive and clean with easy to follow signage. Underground walkways connected the subway to every point imaginable. We found our way to the ferry and figured out how to purchase a ticket through the kiosk. The ferry took us to Hong Kong Island where we went looking for the Victoria Peak tramway.

After waiting more than an hour in line for the tram we paid the senior rate of $45 Hong Kong dollars (about $6 US) and squeezed in for an unimposing ride up the steep incline. After enjoying a drink overlooking the city we decided to avoid the return-trip crowd and take a bus down the hill. Unfortunately a bus had just slammed into a taxi and was blocking the underground bus station. We watched the rescue operation and ended up taking a taxi down the hill. The winding road was much more scenic than the tram had been.

The next morning we left the hotel at 5AM for a 28 hour ordeal flying home. We've flown to Asia twice before and always marveled at the comfort and level of service on Asiana and Korea Airlines. The Chinese equivalent, Hunan Airlines, was a cattle car by comparison.

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