The mission was clear. We had just two weeks to visit six cities in five provinces covering thousands of miles and 6,000 years of history in this vast country that reveres its past while hurtling headlong into 21st century modernity.
Our host, the China National Tourist Board, would provide air and river transport as well as guides and flexible itinerary in each location. We gladly accepted the daunting challenge, arriving in Beijing with empty bags and stomachs to be filled along the way with the treasures of the orient.
The state-of-the-art China Air flight over the North Pole from New York took only thirteen hours, a record for Asia. David Bowie’s “Ch-ch-changes” played softly on the airport muzak as we cleared customs and might serve well as anthem for the hospitality of the new China.
The stern faced Communist bureaucrats in drab Mao-era clothing have now been replaced by tourist-friendly, fashionably dressed folks who are ready for business and long-denied pleasure. There was a palpable sense of manifest destiny in the capital, knowing that in the near future China would again assume its position at the center of the world.
Or, as Zhang Lingyun, deputy director of the Academy of Tourism Development at Beijing International Studies University, has advised, “We should upgrade the image of Beijing, or even China…as a tourist destination, and we should try to attract more tourists before and after the Games.”
We checked into the venerable Beijing Hotel which had recently undergone extensive renovations. The gargantuan marble structure occupied two square blocks near Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City and hosted a wide range of upscale, mostly business travelers. We had a “Lost in Translation” moment as the singer in the lobby lounge crooned Nora Jones hits in a thick Mandarin accent.
After a welcome supper of stir fried veggies, kung pao chicken and hot and sour soup at the Long Li Hotel Restaurant, our Beijinger friend “Angie” collected us for a Saturday nightlife tour. We ended up in a throbbing expatriate bar appropriately called Suzy Wongs, filled with gaggles of trendy young Chinese women and their American and Euro suitors. At the bar, we were approached by a man selling pirated DVDs of recent films for a dollar a piece. Unable to resist, we had our first shopping experience acquiring the beginnings of a large and illegal film library.
The next morning we made the obligatory trip to the 6,000 kilometer Great Wall that snakes over the mountains as far as the eye can see and the legendary Forbidden City, built by the Ming almost 600 years ago. Even in the cool, drizzly conditions, both attractions were filled with throngs of mostly Chinese tourists gawking and grooving on their history.
After lunch near the Great Wall at the Badaling Hotel, known for its delectable dumplings, we decided to do some serious clothes shopping at the sprawling Silk Alley Market. Angie lectured us on bargaining technique: offer ten percent of the initial price and go to no higher than twenty percent. Her simple lesson served us well. In a couple of hours, we could hardly carry the Polo, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Prada and other big name designer items at absurdly low prices. Was the stuff counterfeit? At these prices, we asked no questions.
Our Beijing shopping spree would not be complete without a visit to the Pan Jia Yuan antique market. Every Sunday dealers from far and wide haul their wares to market starting at 5 AM. Everything from fine bronzes, pottery and paintings to carpets and kitschy Mao memorabilia was offered. We arrived on the late side but through fierce bargaining came away with impressive buys. Be aware of faux antique items which were common here.
Thanks to consummate foodie Ed Schoenfeld for the following restaurant recommendations which represent some of the best food in Beijing: Da Dong Beijing Duck House is the gourmet place for duck as well as lobster flavored noodles, saffron sauces and foie. The Li Family Restaurant is a bare bones treasure located in a “hutong” (a courtyard residence) that is not to be missed.
Exhausted from our full day of bargain hunting and inhaling the plethora of foodie delights, we departed Beijing for warmer climates south. Chongqing, the eighth largest city in China with a population of more than three million, would be our disembarkation point for the next leg of our Great Adventure — a Yangzi River cruise.
One of China’s more interesting and least visited cities, Chongqing is built on steep hills that are reminiscent of San Francisco. Beauty aside, it is also a city of scientific significance. It was in March, 2004, that the Chongquing Museum of Natural History began formal excavation of a newly discovered dinosaur fossil. Belonging to the Mamenxi dinosaur of the sauropod family, this herbivorous and gregarious creature lived in the late Jurassic period about 130 million years ago and became extinct in the Cretaceous period.
Feeling like two old fossils ourselves due to lingering jetlag, we still managed to enjoy our short time in Chongquing. Once again, it was a foodie affair as we gave into our insatiable appetites. Devouring a belly-busting Sichuan “hot pot” at the impressive Zhu’s Restaurant, a cook-it-yourself affair, we sat around a large cauldron of spicy boiling water adding fish, beef, pork, greens, tripe and other unmentionable edibles to the hot pot resulting in a memorable meal. Satiated and happy, we boarded the China Regal Cruises Princess Elaine for a four day float down the wide Yangzi River through the storied Three Gorges to Wuhan.
The Princess Elaine, along with the Princess Jeannie and Princess Sheena, was built in Germany. Each ship accommodates 258 passengers with a crew of 150. 114 double and 10 single staterooms, with bathroom with separate shower, spacious windows and a refrigerator. 10 superior deluxe suites with bedroom and separate lounge, a kitchen area, minibar and bathroom with bathtub, shower and bidet, as well as panoramic outside windows. There’s radio and television, along with air-conditioning and heating, 24-hour room service and laundry service, not to mention limited access to the internet.
A Tai Chi class led by Dr. Han, the ship’s doctor and acupuncturist, was the only way to start our day as we continued to battle fatigue and jetlag. We klutzed our way through the session until breakfast was served, a copious food selection that consisted of a slightly toned down Chinese and western style buffet geared to the predominantly Euro and elite Chinese clientele.
After lunch, we docked at Fengdu for a tour of the “Ghost City”, a Tang dynasty complex of temples. Forgoing the cable car and craving exercise, we hiked up the mountainside to the shrines which contained scary sculptures of demons and devils. There was a Disneyesque feel to the attraction that seemed to delight the many Chinese tourists. Back on the boat, we indulged ourselves with vigorous Chinese massage and healing acupuncture for our aches and pains that resulted in a long-sought after good night’s sleep.
The second day on the river was spent passing through the spectacular Three Gorges. We sailed through the first Qutang Gorge with narration provided by our river guide. He assured us that in spite of the rise in the river’s water level, due to the massive dam construction downstream, the scenic beauty of the Gorges would be unaffected. As we glided past ancient pagodas and the mist shrouded Goddess Peak, we glimpsed the obvious inspiration for Chinese landscape painting.
The high point of the Three Gorges passage was an excursion up the Shannong Stream, a scenic tributary of the Yangzi. The small peapod boats were pulled by half-naked trackers singing bawdy folk songs. The scenery was even more dramatic with up close views of the unique geology and bucolic splendor of the region.
At last we reached Xiling, the longest of the Three Gorges and entered the locks that would take us to the mammoth Gezhouba Dam construction site. Going through the locks is a curious experience: the back gates close behind the ship, water is drained from the lock until the level inside is the same as outside, then the front gates open and the ship sails onward.
According to the government, the controversial Gezhouba Dam will help control perennial flooding on the Yangzi as well as providing much needed clean hydroelectric power. The real consequences of its construction will not be known for years, but the overriding Chinese sense of destiny fuels the massive project come hell or high water. But after touring the huge complex, we couldn’t help but be impressed with the sheer magnitude of what will be the world’s largest dam. When it’s completed in 2009, Yangtze cruisers will be voyaging through what will be the largest national park in the world, including 11 new lakes, 37 canyons and an underwater museum.
On the fourth day around noon, we docked at Wuhan, one of China’s largest commercial cities. The temperature hovered around ninety degrees as we walked the sparkling renovated riverfront area with an Olympic pool and other recreational facilities. We ventured a block inland and found a globalized shopping street complete with KFC, McDonalds and department stores stocked with the latest designer clothing and beauty products.
Our Wuhan home was the Mayflower Best Western, a five star gem boasting a terrific health club, pool, and world class restaurants. We settled in at the health club where over- zealous locker room boys undressed us and placed us in bathing attire (a bit too much service).
That evening we were feted by Mr. Tang, the congenial head of regional tourism for Wubei province. The gastronomic extravaganza included sea cucumber, tasty river fish steamed in tomato broth, tender eel, stir fried river shrimp, tofu and pork soup and a host of other delectable dishes from the rich regional culinary palette.
A must-see visit in Wuhan is the great Hubei Provincial Museum. Its large assemblage of artifacts from the 433 BC Zenghouyi royal tomb included bronze vessels, weapons, jade, gold and turquoise jewelry, and the 64 world-renowned bronze bells. This remarkable collection rivals the finest Egyptian archeological treasures. Our visit ended with a stirring musical performance on replicas of the famous bells performed by musicians and dancers in period costumes.
Culturally sated and feeling the urge to shop again, we found magnificent hand loomed carpets at the Wuhan state sponsored factory store. The prices were on the high side but the workmanship and weaving quality justified the tab.
Sub-tropical Guilin was the next stop on our cultural odyssey. A cruise on the scenic Li River was in order to view the surreal, beautiful Bubble Mountains. But first things first — we were dutily informed that we were checking in to the same nondescript diplomatic hotel where once-president Richard Nixon stayed in the days of ping pong diplomacy. Tired from our long day’s journey, athletic massages performed by petite masseuses with deceptively strong hands consumed us as we were bent and stretched every which way and FINALLY cured of any lingering jet lag for a mere seven dollars.
Early the following warm morning, we boarded one of the numerous cruise boats at the city dock. The scene was tourist pandemonium with local and foreign tourists clamoring for photo positions on the “circle line” style boat. On the river, we floated languidly past the famous needlelike limestone peaks known as karsts. A Chinese poet once described the eerie, mist-kissed scenery this way: “The river forms a green silk belt, the mountains are like blue jade hairpins.”
Elephant Trunk Hill is the symbol of the Guilin, so-called because it resembles an elephant drinking from the Li River. Mid-way through the cruise, our craft was intercepted by comically aggressive sampan vendors selling local handicrafts. We bought an overpriced carved Buddha before disembarking — five hours later! — at our next port of call, Yangshuo.
The ancient, picturesque town of Yangshuo in South China proved to be a formidable destination for scenic, culinary and shopping adventures. We were comfortably ensconced at the Yanshuo Regency Holiday Hotel, a charming older structure with ample atmosphere. A few steps from the wraparound porch of the hotel, we found Xi Jie, a long pedestrian mall chockablock with stores selling local handicrafts, sensuous silks, leather, and a mind-boggling array of bargain priced treasures.
After doing some extreme shopping (we needed to buy more luggage here to hold all our newly bought treasures), we stumbled into the West Street Brothers Restaurant for one of the trip’s best meals. The feast included exceptional carp steamed in beer with peppers, succulent fatty duck, garlicky snails, pork spareribs and a silky pumpkin soup. Afterwards we slept soundly with dreams of our final stop in Shanghai dancing in our heads.
During the hard times of China’s Cultural Revolution the typical greeting was “Have you eaten?” Today the salutation has changed to “Are you making money?”
In Shanghai, we found the residents eating very well, indeed, and making scads and scads of money. Shanghai is the centerpiece of China’s economic revolution with a growth rate reflected by the large number of skyscrapers popping up like mushrooms on the “Blade Runner-esqe” skyline. Conspicuous consumption is the order of the day with rickshaws and bicycles replaced by Bmers and Benzs.
Back in 221 B.C., Shanghai was a sleepy fishing village. It was a small, walled city until 1842, when it came under British control during the Opium War and trade flourished. Against a background of growing corruption and widespread poverty, it became the site of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
The original fortunes of the city that was built on the opium, tea and silk trade have given way to multinational global business interests. While Beijing will never relinquish its role as China’s political capital, Shanghai is poised to resume its position as the financial and cultural center.
The glistening five-star Mayfair Hotel in the Chang Ning district was the perfect vantage point to watch early morning Tai Chi in the park across the street from our plush suite on the 22nd floor. Despite its 21st century trappings, Shanghai is still a romantic city. It was once known as Paris on the Huangpu since it attracted sophisticates from around the world. During the 1930s and ’40s, it became a haven for European Jews seeking asylum from persecution. To this day there remains a large community of political refugees.
Joining the tourist hordes in what was left of Old Shanghai, we wandered the magnificent Yu Yuan Garden and marveled at this architectural masterpiece. The classically styled Yu Yuan Garden is a bit touristy but you can find basic souvenirs, such as fans, chopsticks, pearls and silk purses — all in one place, we might add. Bargaining is expected everywhere, so be prepared to do battle with a calculator.
We noshed nearby on tasty steamed buns at the Nanxiang Mantoudian Restaurant. Shanghai’s staple snack is xiaolongbao: steamed dumplings filled with pork and soup. Lunch was a formal affair featuring stellar jellyfish and tender stir fried beef at the same Old Shanghai restaurant where President Clinton chowed down on his visit here. The influence of European cooking on Shanghai cuisine can be tasted in the cream sauces and the inclusion of brandy and wine in many recipes. There’s even a Shanghainese version of Borscht. And those abstaining from pork should ask the content of each dish since pork is a mainstay of the Chinese diet.
After lunch, we left the narrow streets, exotic scents and bustling markets to cross over to the bustling, futuristic Pudong district on the east side of the Huangpu River. Remarkably since our last trip to Shanghai, this formerly marshy farmland has blossomed into a Special Economic Zone that is eight times the size of London’s Canary Wharf. From the top of the Pudong TV tower, the massive scope of development and construction was clearly visible.
When the days sightseeing ended, we adjourned to our omniscient guide’s secret non- sexual massage salon for an ultimate treat. The session began with an extreme pedicure and acupressure foot pummeling that rearranged our internal organs. We then endured two hours of contortionist activities during which the masseuses (more deceptively petite ladies from the countryside) pretzelized our bodies until we begged for mercy. We emerged anew from this massage of a lifetime, glowing with health and extremely beautiful feet.
Shanghai offers China’s best shopping, so our final two days were spent in a wild frenzy at the humongous Xiangyang Lu Fashion Market. This is the big one with every conceivable luxury item represented. We stocked up on Lacoste shirts ($5), Prada and Louis Vuitton bags ($20), designer watches galore, Shanghai Tang style mandarin silks and yet more DVDs (better quality on older films).
Giorgio Armani cites Shanghai as “the most talked about city in the world,” yet, as with any large city, visitors should be cautious of pickpockets although the crime rate is low. And it’s best to avoid major holidays like National Day (October 1) and Labor Day (May 1).
The last night we made a final visit to the Bund (an Indian word meaning muddy river banks), which is Shanghai’s waterfront promenade and prime tourist attraction. Built in the 1920s and ’30s, this collection of 24 grand buildings is both a historical treasure and poignant reminder of the city’s foreign-dominated past. Afterwards, we wandered glassy-eyed, overweight, and laden with booty along the neon artery called Nanjing Lu. Already plotting a return to this amazing land for more decadent pursuits, Chairman Mao would not approve.