In China, terra cotta soldiers guard an ancient emperor’s tomb ... a royal palace forbidden to visitors for centuries opens its doors in welcome ... and the largest dam in the world harnesses the power of a mighty river while flooding thousands of years of history, altering the face of a country forever. In China, the past, the present, and the future are alive, vital, and inextricably mixed. Explore Beijing’s greatest monuments, discover Xian’s Mongolian cuisine, and enjoy a Yangtze River cruise for three nights. Get to know China’s people and landscapes as you share a meal with a family in their home, ride on a high-speed train, sail small boats through gigantic gorges, and discover the profound beauty of Tibetan culture during a three-night stay in Lhasa. It’s a grand adventure on an intimate scale.
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Discover Mongolia from the Gobi Desert, where nomadic herders still practice an ancient way of life … to the plains of Kharkhorin, where Genghis Khan once rode … and the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where modern buildings stand near Buddhist monasteries and traditional ger tents. Join us to explore this fascinating land.View Extension Itinerary
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In Shanghai, we’ll share a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local family, tour the old and new parts of the city, cruise along the canals of an ancient river town, and explore the treasures of the Shanghai Museum. Join us on this pre-trip extension in one of China's most dynamic cities.View Extension Itinerary
You depart this evening for an overnight flight to Beijing.
You fly across the International Date Line and arrive in Beijing in the late afternoon or late evening today. An O.A.T. representative meets you at the airport and assists you to your hotel, where you'll join travelers who have taken the pre-trip extensions to Mongolia, the Gobi Desert & Kharkhorin or Shanghai: China's Historic Gateway to the West.
Dinner is on your own this evening.
Beijing, the modern political and administrative center of China, is also the greatest single repository of monuments and treasures from the imperial era. Today you'll see one of its most notable treasures. But first we enjoy an orientation walk and Welcome Briefing. Then, we head for the Summer Palace, which has the largest and best-preserved royal garden in China. Early in the Jin Dynasty, an imperial palace named Golden Hill Palace was built on the present site of the Summer Palace. Through the centuries, portions of the grounds and buildings were destroyed during warfare, then restored or redesigned. The Summer Palace of today is more or less the same as the palace rebuilt in 1903. After the last Qing emperor, Puyi, was thrown out of the Summer Palace in 1924, the garden was turned into a park. Surrounded by lovely Kunming Lake and classic Chinese gardens, the palace halls and pavilions are filled with ornate furnishings and fine artwork. After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll continue our walking tour of the Summer Palace and enjoy a brief boat ride on Kunming Lake.
After returning to our hotel, the remainder of the afternoon is yours to explore at leisure, perhaps to visit the Temple of Heaven on your own. This temple, built between 1406 and 1420 by the same Yongle emperor who was responsible for building the Forbidden City, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site regarded as a masterpiece of architectural and landscape design.
Later this evening, we’ll gather together again for a Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast at our hotel, we'll tour the Wild Great Wall, the most authentic sections of the Great Wall, which haven't been rebuilt for tourism. China's Great Wall easily qualifies as the world's greatest civil engineering feat. The massive ramparts were begun in separate strategic sections between 403-221 BC. During the reign of China's first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, some 300,000 men were put to work connecting the segments into one huge, snaking fortification. Archaeologists estimate that the wall once ran for 6,200 miles through an expanse that now covers 16 provinces. Today, the wall is still impressive at 3,750 miles in length, stretching from the Bohai Sea to the Gobi Desert. Contrary to common belief, the Great Wall was more than just a barrier. Indeed, it served as an elevated highway linking the defensive forces along China's rugged northern frontier. The roadway atop the wall provided a means of rapid communication and deployment of troops, arms, and food.
After our visit to the Great Wall, we'll visit a nearby village to enjoy lunch with a local family and have opportunities to interact with family members and learn about everyday life in today’s China. Returning to hotel in Beijing, we’ll make a brief stop at the Beijing National Stadium—better known as Bird’s Nest Stadium. Site of the 2008 Olympic Games, the massive stadium is said to be the largest steel structure in the world.
Dinner tonight is on your own. Or, you can choose to join an optional tour to a dazzling performance by local acrobats, with an included dinner.
Like the old Chinese puzzles of “boxes within boxes,” Beijing was originally laid out in a series of concentric circles. We focus on the innermost two today: The Forbidden City and the surrounding Imperial City. We begin at grand Tiananmen Square. At 100 acres, it is the largest public square in the world, capable of holding more than a million people. Each of the cobbles is numbered so that parade units can line up in their assigned spots. But as you explore, you may remember a more somber event: the tragic student demonstrations that took place here in 1989. Lined with official buildings, Tiananmen is presided over by the giant portrait of Chairman Mao, which hangs above the Gate of Heavenly Peace and seems to stare down at the leader's own Memorial Hall. Mao is entombed in the Hall in a crystal sarcophagus, his body draped in the red flag of the People's Republic that he founded in 1949.
Tiananmen is always filled with people, including kite-flying children. Here you'll see legendary landmarks, including the Great Hall of the People and the towering Monument to the People's Heroes, a 125-foot granite obelisk honoring those who died in the communist revolution.
Next, we visit the Forbidden City, or Gugong, a 9,000-room maze of courtyards, palaces, and ceremonial halls, where 24 emperors (“the Sons of Heaven”) and two dynasties ruled the Middle Kingdom. Protected by 30-foot-high walls and a 160-foot-wide moat, the Forbidden City was indeed a forbidden place; commoners were kept out for nearly 500 years. The greatest achievement of the visionary Emperor Yongle, this architectural triumph was completed in a mere 14 years by 200,000 workers. Behind its Gate of Supreme Harmony, which is flanked by bronze lions, you'll find classic buildings with interiors featuring marble floors and ceilings with grand murals. We view the exterior of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the tallest and largest of the six main palace buildings, and stroll through an open-air exhibition detailing the history and preservation of this famous structure. We will also view two other main halls, the Hall of Central Harmony, or Zhonghe Dian, and Hall of Preserving Harmony, known locally as Baohe Dian.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we visit the Beijing Municipal Opera School (when in session), where we'll interact with students learning traditional Chinese operas, including singing and dancing. Then, we'll talk to Beijing citizen and discover what it was like for him and his family living through several important events in China's recent past, including his experiences during the Cultural Revolution and while witnessing the Tiananmen Incident. Travelers can also ask him any questions about life in Beijing during these turbulent times. This evening, dinner is at a local restaurant.
After breakfast, we check out of our hotel. Then you'll get a glimpse of everyday Chinese life on a tour of a Beijing hutong. These old residential neighborhoods consist of acres of low, flat-roofed buildings crisscrossed by narrow lanes. On a guided walking tour, we'll find daily life proceeding unconcerned with the great events of nations. Children playing ... the sounds and smells of food being prepared ... merchants setting up shop—all will help you appreciate China's humanity, which is all too often overshadowed by the grandiose monuments that dominate the experiences of most tourists.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll depart for the train station in Beijing, where we’ll board a high-speed train to Xian. Located in the fertile Wei River valley, Xian was the largest city in the world during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the capital of eleven dynasties, a major trading hub along the Silk Route, and a center of Chinese civilization. Though its glory days are long over, it is still a cultural and intellectual capital, boasting some eleven universities, a thriving artists' community, and a burgeoning film industry. As we admire the city, be sure to note its symmetrical grid design, considered by scholars as a model of ancient city planning.
On our train ride—which will last around 4.5 hours—we’ll enjoy a simple boxed dinner. We’ll arrive in Xian later this evening.
After breakfast, we’ll visit Xian’s City Wall, one of the most complete structures of its kind in all of China. Constructed during the Ming Dynasty, the City Wall is one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world. Then we’ll enjoy a tai chi demonstration in a local park, followed by a visit to Small Wild Goose Pagoda. Built in the seventh century to house Buddhist scriptures, the pagoda also contains statues of Buddhist figures in Chinese history and notable Tang Dynasty artworks.
This afternoon, after an included lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll have some leisure time in Xian, or you can choose to join your Trip Leader on an elective shopping excursion to a jade factory. Tonight, we indulge in a dumpling dinner and enjoy a Tang Dynasty cultural show at a local restaurant.
After breakfast at our hotel, we marvel at the great ranks of life-sized soldiers, generals, charioteers, and horses of Xian's Terra Cotta Army. Considered one of the foremost archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, the 2,000-year-old Terra Cotta Army was discovered by accident in 1974 by local farmers digging a well. The 6,000-plus life-sized figures are arranged in vaults at the entrance to the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Qin emperor, a major architect of the Great Wall and unifier of China. The soldiers are ranked in military order, hold actual spears and swords and, incredibly, have unique facial expressions. There is also an exhibit of a remarkable miniature model of a Qin Dynasty bronze chariot, complete with horses and coachmen. After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll continue our discoveries at this remarkable archaeological site.
Later this afternoon, we’ll visit the community-founded Shao Ping Dian Primary School (when is session), which is supported in part by donations from Grand Circle Foundation—part of the World Classroom initiative. We'll meet students and teachers and gain some person-to-person insight into Chinese culture.
This evening, we’ll enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.
This morning, we travel into the countryside to share A Day in the Life of Donghan, a village where the colorful "peasant" painting style originated in the 1950s. We’ll meet local families for a discussion of what life is like in this rural community, and break up into smaller groups to participate in preparing and sharing lunch in the homes of our hosts. We'll also visit an artist’s studio to see how Donghan’s painting tradition is still thriving, and stroll through the old part of the village and see firsthand how life has changed in recent times for the people who live here. Afterward, we return to our hotel. For a change of pace, dinner this evening is included at an Islamic restaurant in Xian’s famous Muslim Quarter.
This morning, we transfer to the airport for our flight to Chengdu. When we arrive this afternoon, you’ll have some time at leisure before dinner at a local restaurant.
After dinner, you can join our optional tour: Changing Faces Opera with Backstage Visit. Face changing, or bian lian in Chinese, is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the traditional Sichuan style of opera. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. But what is most impressive is their ability to change from one vividly colored mask to another in magically quick succession. Before the performance, we'll meet the performers backstage and try another Chinese art: hand shadow play done with a high degree of sophistication.
This morning, we visit the Panda Sanctuary, located just outside of Chengdu. Because of its location in Sichuan Province, native habitat of the giant panda, this facility has live pandas on display, the largest number you can see anywhere in the world. Here you can see these large, beautiful animals freely roaming and munching on bamboo in a natural environment. There are only 1,000 pandas still living in the wild in all of China, mostly in northern Sichuan and in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, in elevations between 4,000 and 10,000 feet.
First appearing in the fossil record some three million years ago, the giant panda is under siege in this century—from habitat eradication, cyclical starvation, and poachers who get as much as $10,000 for a giant panda hide in Hong Kong and Japan. China's ambitious ten-year conservation plan aims to preserve existing habitats, expand existing reserves, and create new reserves in an international effort to stave off the extinction of this elegant, almost mystical, animal.
Given the scale of the battle being fought for the panda's survival, places like the Giant Panda Sanctuary just outside Chengdu are essential. The sanctuary is not a zoo but a simulated habitat, with acres of space for its inhabitants to roam and thrive as nature intended. We'll take a guided tour through the sanctuary and have the rare chance to see the giant panda in a natural environment. You may be touched both by the plight of these loveable creatures and the hope for their recovery.
We'll have lunch at a local restaurant today and free time this afternoon before dinner at another local restaurant.
Early this morning we'll transfer to the airport for our flight to Lhasa, Tibet. We'll arrive in Lhasa this afternoon, have lunch at a local restaurant, and check in to our hotel, followed by time to relax.
As the city is at an elevation of 12,000 feet, you may feel the effects of its high altitude. We strongly recommend that you plan on a minimum of two hours of bed rest upon arrival to help you acclimatize, and be sure to drink plenty of water during your time in Tibet.
Later in the afternoon, you can join a short walk in the vicinity of the hotel to get oriented. Afterward, a lecturer will enlighten our group about Tibetan history and folk customs.
For 350 years, Lhasa, the “City of the Sun,” has been at the political and economic center of Tibet. The country itself has existed since the seventh century as a remote mountain theocracy based on the mystical tenets of Lamaism, a form of Tantric Indian Buddhism coupled with Tibetan shamanism. Here, feudal Lamas whose spiritual authority was matched by their complete control of internal affairs ruled the rural population. Some reigns were benevolent, while others were ruthless.
The autonomy of the Lamas waxed and waned during various Chinese dynasties, with almost complete independence enjoyed during the Republican period (1912-1949). But things changed during China's Cultural Revolution. In 1951, through military action and pressured negotiation, China re-established its sovereignty. After years of steadily increasing oppression, a revolt broke out in 1959, and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India.
Widespread persecution of the Tibetan people continued, reaching a peak during the Cultural Revolution. Thousands of monks and nuns were sent to labor camps. Hundreds of ancient monasteries were destroyed wholesale. Arbitrary agricultural reforms, such as imposed planting of unfamiliar crops and the collectivization of yak and goat herds, undermined traditional Tibetan life. The population was further destabilized when the Chinese government encouraged non-Tibetan Han Chinese people to settle in Tibet, thereby weakening the cultural foundations of the region.
In spite of these hardships, Tibetan culture has continued to thrive under the stewardship of the exiled Dalai Lama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. A charismatic figure, he has been able to force the Chinese government into seeking normalized relations, restoring temples, allowing some religious freedoms, and permitting some degree of free enterprise. Attempts by the government to bring the Dalai Lama back to China have been unsuccessful so far. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama, along with a growing coterie of international celebrities and activists, continues in the struggle to safeguard Tibetan human rights.
This evening, we have dinner at our hotel.
Please note: Because of the controversial and sensitive nature of Chinese control over Tibet, the Chinese government will occasionally close the border to Tibet without prior notice. Should this occur during your trip, O.A.T. will make alternative arrangements for your group to travel to the historic cities of Kunming and Lijiang, China instead of Tibet. 81% of travelers who have taken this adventure with the Kunming and Lijiang itinerary have rated their trip excellent. The Chinese government may also impose limits on what can and cannot be accessed within Tibet, so there may be need for last-minute changes to the planned activities during your trip. In these cases we ask that you bring an open mind and a sense of humor.
Today we see one of the grandest monuments in all of Asia: the extraordinary Potala Palace. Built in the 17th century (atop the original seventh-century site), it boasts more than 1,000 rooms, including the Red Palace (where the Dalai Lama once lived), 10,000 chapels, and a labyrinth of mysterious dungeons. It took 7,000 workers and 1,500 artists and craftsmen more than 50 years to build the adjoining White and Red palaces. This Eastern architectural triumph was the world's tallest building before the creation of 20th-century skyscrapers.
During our explorations, we'll encounter pilgrims who journey to this sacred Buddhist shrine from throughout Tibet. Behold an array of treasures: A grand ceremonial hall with magnificent hanging brocades and painted religious scrolls, vivid murals, statues of Buddha, and a mandala made of 20,000 pearls. Of particular note are the rich gold and jewel-encrusted tombs of eight Dalai Lamas. Perched on Red Mountain, the Palace offers sweeping views of the city and the surrounding immense peaks that are as extraordinary as its interior. We explore the 13-story structure and enjoy lunch at a local restaurant followed by the rest of the afternoon at leisure.
This evening, we'll enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast today, we head for the Barkhor Bazaar, a section of the oldest part of Lhasa that bustles with marketplace activity and religious devotion. We enter the 1,300-year-old Jokhang Temple, where we are likely to see Buddhist pilgrims making clockwise circuits on their hands and knees in reverence to one of Tibet's most sacred sites. Thousands of yak-butter candles flicker inside beneath the enlightened gaze of the golden Jowo Sakyamuni, the seventh-century Buddha statue that the temple was built to house. We’ll also pause for some sweet tea at a local teahouse. We then have lunch at a local restaurant.
Later, you may choose to enjoy an optional visit to the Sera Monastery, one of the largest of the Gelugpa sect. In the Tibetan language, sera means “wild rose garden.” The monastery earned the name for the opulent wild roses that grew all around the site centuries ago. At its peak, the monastery was the home for more than 7,000 monks. While the numbers of roses and monks have diminished with the passage of time, the monastery and its grounds have only increased in cultural significance and emotional power. Built in 1419—the year that the sect's founder, Je Tsongkhapa, died—Sera Monastery features the largest tsokchen (main assembly hall) in the town, four stories high and with nearly 11,000 square feet of floor space. The monastery was built to house precious gifts from the emperor to one of Je Tsongkhapa's disciples.
Je Tsongkhapa was an extraordinary student and teacher and had remarkable powers of memorization, debate, and meditation. Ordained at the age of three, he traveled widely to study with his era's greatest teachers and to train thousands of monks. He also undertook extraordinarily rigorous meditation retreats, one of which lasted four years.
Sera also has three monastic colleges, which served in past centuries as magnets for thousands of monks who traveled from all over Tibet to study, train, and mediate. The chanting halls, chapels, statues, and lovely, undamaged murals have been carefully cared for. The tapestries, scroll paintings, and scriptures written in gold powder still glow, as you'll see. We'll also visit the Papungka Monastery, a smaller, off-the-beaten-path retreat with an excellent view over Lhasa. Here we may be able to view a platform of the kind used for a traditional Tibetan "sky burial."
We enjoy dinner at a local restaurant this evening.
Today we fly from Lhasa to Chongqing. We have dinner at a local restaurant in Chongqing and then embark our Yangtze River cruise ship and spend our first night onboard.
Depending on the water level of the Yangtze, today’s shore excursion will either be in Shi Bao Zhai or Fengdu, known as the “Ghost City” to many Chinese people. At either locale, we will meet with a local Chinese family relocated due to the Three Gorges Dam project.
Today, our Yangtze River cruise takes us through Qutang Gorge, the farthest upstream of the Three Gorges. Although the shortest of the three, the Qutang is by far the most dramatic, with sheer cliffs and such remarkable features as the Meng Liang staircase, painstakingly carved by a loyal bodyguard attempting to recover his master’s body from the cliff face. On the south bank as we enter the Qutang, we pass Daxi Village, the site of western China’s earliest-known civilization. The 74 tombs here contain archaeological finds up to 6,000 years old. Overlooking the west end of the gorge is Baidicheng, or White Emperor City. Baidicheng dates to AD 25 and has long been a refuge for would-be kings and poets—thanks to its proximity to the spectacular and inspiring Qutang Gorge.
We enter the Wu Gorge, renowned for the quiet beauty of its forested mountains. The Twelve Peaks are ranked alongside the gorge. The great Chinese poet Qu Yuan leapt into the river to his death here in 288 BC, an event marked each spring with dragon boat races.
At Wushan we board smaller river craft—which we’ll share with other tour groups—for an excursion up the Daning River or the Shennong Stream, both tributaries of the Yangtze. Here we’ll drift through the exquisite Lesser Three Gorges: Dragon-Gate Gorge, Misty Gorge, and Emerald Gorge. We’ll pass between sheer precipices, stopping at sandy shoals and quiet lagoons. (When the water level in the river is low, we make part of this excursion by bus.)
After breakfast we will disembark for a tour of the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest dam, measuring 606 feet high and 6,500 feet long.
Although a dam was proposed as long ago as 1919 by Sun Yat-Sen, the present site was selected by an American team of engineers in the early 1940s. The project gained momentum in the 1980s and began in earnest in 1990. In 1997, the cofferdam was completed and the main structure begun. The dam has two five-stage locks to raise and lower ships to the different river levels. Each lock in the five stages is 65 feet high and 910 feet long.
This massive project has pitted China's economic interests against the concerns of historic preservationists and environmentalists worldwide. In addition to flooding some of the world's most spectacular scenic areas and rich ecosystems to a depth of 325 feet, the waters submerged some 35 notable historic sites (some of which were relocated). The 632 square miles of terrain being inundated as the reservoir fills include 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, 657 factories, and 66,000 acres of cultivated land. Approximately 1.3 million people are being relocated to new towns above the high-water mark.
The Chinese government points to the benefits of the Three Gorges Dam, including its ability to control the area's severe flooding, the huge and much-needed hydroelectric potential, the opening of the upper Yangtze to 10,000-ton ships, and the irrigation value of the water.
We reboard the ship and cruise to Yichang, where we'll disembark and have lunch at a local restaurant. Then we transfer by bus (approximately 5-6 hours) to Wuhan. Upon arrival in Wuhan, we check in to our hotel, where we have dinner this evening.
This morning we transfer to the airport for our flight to Hong Kong. When we arrive in Hong Kong this afternoon, we'll transfer to our hotel for check-in, and take an orientation walk in which you'll learn about local public transportation. You'll have the rest of the day at leisure.
Dinner tonight is on your own.
After breakfast this morning, we begin a city tour. Our guided explorations of Hong Kong by coach will feature some of this densely populated city’s most famous attractions.
We’ll explore the city’s traditional Chinatown district, including bustling Ladder Street. From there, we’ll take the Mid Levels Escalator, the world’s longest covered outdoor escalator, which takes about 20 minutes to travel from end to end. We’ll also explore Man Mo Temple and an Aberdeen fishing village. We’ll finish at a well-known jewelry shop with time to hunt for bargains.
Dinner is on your own tonight. Hong Kong is one of the world’s great culinary capitals, offering a sensational array of restaurants. You can feast on specialties from every part of the world, from curry and dim sum to pasta and shish kebab.
Or you can join us for an optional Hong Kong by Night & Asian Cuisine tour. After dinner at a local restaurant, we’ll stroll through the Temple Street night market, where you can browse the many interesting shops that feature inexpensive clothing, novelty items, and fortune-tellers and palm-readers. Then we’ll take the Star Ferry across the harbor to Central Pier, where we’ll be driven up Victoria Peak to gaze at the night view. After returning to Happy Valley, we’ll enjoy a streetcar ride through Wan Chai, the famous red-light district. It’s an exciting look at Hong Kong at night.
After breakfast, you have the day free to discover more of Hong Kong on your own. You might take in some of the city’s fine museums, such as the Hong Kong Museum of History or the Museum of Arts. Hollywood Road and “Cat Street” are famous for their many antique and curio shops selling silk carpets and Chinese furniture.
Tonight, we celebrate our adventure with a delicious Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant.
Depending on the U.S. city you are returning to, your homeward flight leaves in the morning or early afternoon. Flying back across the International Date Line, you arrive in the U.S. on the same calendar day. Or, if you are taking the Heart of Cambodia: Angkor Wat & Siem Reap post-trip extension, you will fly to Cambodia today.
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Set in tropical forests near Siem Reap, Cambodia, is Angkor Wat—the largest temple complex in the world. On this extension, we'll discover this UNESCO World Heritage Site and also meet the friendly people of Cambodia as we visit a lakeside village, share a Home-Hosted meal, and much more.View Extension Itinerary