Beijing: This mammoth city has countless stories to tell. The mythical Forbidden City is the largest imperial palace complex in the world, with 9,999 rooms – one room short of the number the ancient Chinese believed to be ‘Divine Perfection.’ For 500 years, the palace was the administrative center of the country and the residence of emperors and empresses of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Also built on an imposing scale, Tiananmen Square is said to be able to hold one million people. The Great Wall snakes through five provinces, running 4,163 km/2,587 mi. Beijing’s historic temples include 16th-century Temple of Heaven, Temple of Confucius, Niujie Mosque, built in 996, and Yonghe Monastery. The Summer Palace includes an elegant, classic garden of serene beauty.
Dunhuang: Skirting the Taklamakan Desert west of Xi’an, Dunhuang is a former dynastic capital of China. Two branches of the famous Silk Road trade route met here for the final leg to China’s capital. Its fame stems from 492 Mogao Grottos. This phenomenal site features about 44,995 sq. km/17,373 sq. mi. of frescos, 2,415 painted statues, paintings, and some 50,000 Buddhist scriptures, textiles and historic documents. The murals and stucco sculptures were created over a span of nearly a thousand years.
Guilin The city has long been renowned for its unique setting surrounded by hills with two rivers, Li and Taohua, flowing through it. A short cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo navigates through a countryside layered with folk tales and legends, past valleys, bamboo groves, limestone pinnacles and rock formations. The walled city of Jingjiang Princes within Guilin dates from the Ming Dynasty. It once served as an ‘inner city’ occupied by princes and their families. The area’s fascinating formations include Seven Star Cave, Reed Flute Cave, Camel Mountain and Elephant Trunk Hill.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s story is unique. Under British control for more than 150 years, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 and remains one of two special administrative regions that operate under the “one country, two systems” policy. The Chinese government is responsible for the territory’s defense and foreign affairs, but Hong Kong maintains its own legal system, police force, currency, customs and immigration policies. Hong Kong emerged as a leading financial center in the late 20th century. The area, including the New Territories and Macau, is an intriguing destination. Victoria Peak, reached by a tram, offers gorgeous panoramic views of the famous harbor. Ocean Park is one of top theme parks and aquariums in Southeast Asia. Aberdeen Harbor is home to hundreds of trawlers on which generations of fishermen and their families have lived. From the Hong Kong Disneyland to the traditional Po Lin Monastery, from Big Buddha to high-fashion shops, Hong Kong is a destination of delightful eccentricities.
Pingyao: Pingyao’s history dates back some 2,700 years, and is renowned for its ancient walled city. This UNESCO World Heritage Site in Shanxi Province dates from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1054-771 BCE). Strategically located on the old trade route between Beijing and Xi’an, Pingyao was particularly important in the medieval period for banking and money exchange. More than 300 sites in or near the city have ancient ruins, and the city has preserved Ming- and Qing-style residences that number close to 4,000. In 1986, China designated Pingyao as one of the Chinese Historic and Cultural Cities.
Shanghai This modern international metropolis is never motionless as it strives to balance its rich heritage with its future dreams. The Bund on the waterfront is a mix of building styles from Art Deco to ultra-modern. More than 600 boutiques and shops line Nanjing Road, drawing buyers from around the globe. The Shanghai Museum houses art, pottery, paintings and calligraphies. Jade Buddha Temple features white jade Buddha statues imported from Burma in the 19th century. Jin Mao Tower in the financial district in Pudong is the world’s third tallest building.
Shanxi Province: In addition to being home to the city of Pingyao, the province is called the coal belt because of the number of coal mines located here. In Datong, Yungang Grottos encompass a series of 53 Chinese Buddhist temple grottos, dating from 460-494 CE. Taiyuan is known for its phenomenal 1,400-year-old hanging temples, which from a distance seem to dangle precariously from cliffs. Called Tianlongshan Grottoes, the Buddhist temple complex spans two mountains: there are eight grottoes on the eastern mountain and 13 on the western mountain. Constructed over centuries, from the northern Qi dynasty to the Tang dynasty, they contain Buddhist art of high historic importance. The majority of the caves date to the Tang dynasty. The caves have been designated by China as a Major Historical and Cultural Site Protected at the National Level.
Silk Road: Extending some 6,500 km/4,000 mi., the Silk Road was begun during the Han Dynasty (206-220 BCE). Trade along the Silk Road was a significant factor in the growth of the civilizations of China, India, Persia and Arabia. Stations along its route became towns, then cities such as Kashgar, the last station in China. It was the center point for routes from China, departing south to India and west to Tashkent and Samarkand. Sights here include the Abakh Hoja Tomb, the Id Kah Mosque and the famous Sunday Bazaar, where thousands come every Sunday to trade as they have for centuries. Kucha was an ancient Buddhist kingdom located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. In Kucha, the city of Kuqa is the site of the Tang Dynasty Kezil Thousand Buddha Caves that are said to be the earliest major Buddhist cave complex in China. Kucha’s 112 surviving cave temples were begun in the fifth century and abandoned in the 11th century. Note: While this site is not open to the public, Big Five has arranged for private VIP access. Gaochang, the old Uyghur village of Tuyuk, was built in the first century. Once an important trading center, it was destroyed in wars of the 14th century. Other sights in the region include the red sandstone hills of the Flaming Mountains, the Bezeklik Buddhist Caves and the fortress town of Jiao He and its local bazaar. Dunhuang, an oasis strategically placed at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, is the site of the noted fourth-century Mogao Grottos. Note: Big Five has also arranged for a special VIP visit to two of the caves that are closed to the general public.
South China: This region is known for its extravagant scenery of jagged mountains, pleasant rivers and charming towns. The Li River is one of the few places to see an unusual traditional fishing method. Fishermen use trained cormorants to fish in the rivers. Historically, cormorant fishing began around 960. Yangshuo has grown in popularity for its unique beauty and its karst peaks, rivers, caves, and temples, as well as its laidback cafes and bars. It can be explored on foot or by bicycle. The road to Longsheng passes by the dramatic ‘Dragon’s Backbone’ rice terraces, where farmers have grown rice in the same way since the 13th century. Here, too, are several Chinese ethnic minorities such as Zhuang, Miao, Yao and Dong. Kunming is a political, economic and cultural center. Its ancient and once-walled city coexists with modern commercial districts, universities and an astronomical observatory. Yunnan Stone Forest is a fantasy-like forest of karst formations more than 200 million years old with thousands of limestone rock peaks, pillars and stalagmites rising abruptly out of the earth. The small but famous town of Lijiang is home to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a holy place for the Naxi people, which resembles a gigantic dragon clad in coat of white snow. The landscape includes Shanzidou, the main peak, some 5,486 km/18,000 ft. high. A cable car lift provides access to Dragon Spruce Meadow, halfway to the glacier peak. The views of the massif from the gardens at the Black Dragon Pool are said to be among China’s finest views. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lijiang is a well-preserved city of ethnic minorities that reaches back more than 800 years.
Suzhou: Founded in 514 BCE, Suzhou has over 2,500 years of history, with an abundant display of relics and sites of historical interest. Around 100, during the Eastern Han Dynasty, it became one of the ten largest cities in the world primarily from emigration from Northern China. Since the tenth-century Song Dynasty, it has been an important commercial center of China, an ancient cultural city built in the Yangtze River Region, features grand canals and private gardens, which date from the Song Dynasty.
Water Towns of the Grand Canal: The fabled Yangtze River begins to spread out into tributaries. Jiangnan means “South of the Yangtze,” and usually refers to the area between Shanghai and its two neighboring provinces: Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The longest canal in the world today is China’s ancient Grand Canal. Begun in 605, it is 1,794 km/1,115 mi long, and was originally built to carry the Emperor Yang Guang between Beijing and Hangzhou. The ancient canal system intermingled with natural rivers and lakes. Much of the canal is non-functioning, but the section around Jiangnan is still heavily used. Ancient water towns are sprinkled along the way such as Zhouzhuang, Luzhi, and Tongli near Suzhou, and Xitang and Wuzhen near Hangzhou. Each town possesses a distinct personality that is seen in its arched bridges, waterside teahouses, whitewashed Ming- and Qing-era homes and black-awning boats. The awesome landscapes recall images of delicate Chinese silk paintings.
Xian: China’s capital through 11 dynasties, Xian exemplifies the extraordinary continuity of Chinese civilization. The phenomenal Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered here. Life-size warriors guarded the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (246-209 BCE). More than 8,000 soldiers, horses, chariots and weapons have been unearthed at this remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remains of the ancient Banpo Village reveal a settlement of the earliest inhabitants, and is typical of the Neolithic Yangshao culture. At Banpo, archaeologists have recovered nearly 10,000 tools, 45 houses, 200 cellars, pottery kilns and burial sites.
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Taiwan: Taiwan is surprisingly diverse and features a range of nature-based activities – mountain biking, climbing, rafting, scuba diving, sailing and more. Geothermal hot springs are found across Taiwan. The country’s 14 aboriginal tribes include Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Saisiyat, Tsou, Kavalan, Truku, Yami and Sakizaya. Traditional societies were greatly influenced by the predominantly Chinese culture of the island. The country is home to more than 5,000 temples, ranging in size from single-room shrines to vast multi-story complexes. They are not simply museums or relics of bygone era, but active places of worship that blend Buddhist and Taoist belief. Simpler Confucius temples are also found. Geographically separated from Mainland China, Taiwan is a rare tropical mountain-island, two thirds of which is covered by high mountain ranges. The eastern mountains are heavily forested and home to a diverse range of wildlife. The 300-year-old capital city, Taipei, has seen Chinese, Japanese and Western influences filter into its food, culture, folk arts and architecture. It has Minnan-style temples with unique decorative arts, gourmet cafes and boutique centers, buzzing neighborhoods and neon nightlife. National Palace Museum has wide-ranging collections of culture relics. Majestic mountains, green forests, a beautiful seacoast and splendid cultural and historical sights blend to make up modern Taiwan.
Best Time to Go
China is a vast country with wide-ranging climatic conditions, so a decision about the best time to visit should be based on the regions you plan to visit and the kind of weather you enjoy. The best way to deal with weather unpredictability is to wear layered clothing that will make you comfortable in both chilly and warm weather. Autumn (September to October) is usually the most comfortable season of the year. Temperatures are reasonable throughout China, between about 10° to 22° C/50° to 72° F, with a limited amount of rain. Spring can also be pleasant average temperatures roughly the same as in Autumn. Summer (June to August) can be extremely hot with temperatures well above 22° C/72° F, especially in the famous ‘four furnaces’ of China: Wuhan, Tianjin, Chongqing and Nanchang. Summer is also a rainy season. Winter can be extremely cold, especially in the north. But this is also the time of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival and other interesting winter festival.
Day 1: Beijing, China
Beijing is the nation’s capital and offers more treasures than most people have time to explore.
Days 2/3: Beijing
The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs and the legendary Sacred Walk of Statues are just a taste of the Beijing experience.
Day 4: Beijing / Xian
Xian is the gateway to the ancient Silk Road and was the ruling city for 11 dynasties.
Day 5: Xian
Xian is the site of the spectacular archaeological site: the Terracotta Army near the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum.
Day 6: Xian / Guilin / Yangshuo
Guilin is China’s great scenic city on the poetic Li River.
Day 7: Yangshuo
One of the delights of the area is a cruise on the Li River where fishermen use trained cormorants to fish in the rivers.
Day 8: Yangshuo / Lonhsheng / Shanghai
This modern international metropolis is never motionless as it strives to balance its rich heritage with its future dreams.
Day 9: Shanghai
Modern Shanghai – a city of skyscrapers and high technology – is also home to its celebrated Art Deco waterfront, Yu Yuan Garden, Jade Buddha Temple and bustling Old Quarter.
Day 10: Shanghai / Suzhou / Shanghai
The Bund on the waterfront is a mix of building styles from Art Deco to ultra-modern. More than 600 boutiques and shops line Nanjing Road, drawing buyers from around the globe.
Day 11: Shanghai / Depart
Dunhuang (3 days)
Here, two branches of the famous Silk Road Trade Route converge; and near here are the Mogao Grottos, which house 492 caves with more than 2,415 painted statues, paintings and more.
Hong Kong (3 days)
This is quintessential East meets West, where ancient monasteries mix with fashionable, exclusive boutiques and traditional street opera complements the classic Hong Kong ballet.
Lijiang (2 days)
This small town is known as the home to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a holy place for the Naxi people, and for its well-preserved, 800-year-old city.
Pingyao (2 days)
Ancient Pingyao’s history stretches back over some 2,700 years; and the city has preserved thousands of Ming- and Qing-style residences.
Shanxi Province (Coal Belt) (3 days)
The gems of this are encompass the amazing Yungang Grottos, 53 Chinese Buddhist temple grottos, which date from 460-494 CE.
Silk Road (8 days)
The Silk Road conjures up images of camel caravans, nomads and traders; however, goods were not the only items for trade. This ancient route provided opportunities for the exchange of ideas, technologies, religions and philosophies.
South China (8 days)
Kunming, Lijiang and Yangshuo, like Guilin, are noted for striking scenery, including the serrated Yunnan Stone Forest, and some of the region’s fascinating ethnic Chinese minorities.
Water Towns of Grand Canal (4 days)
Jiangnan means “South of the Yangtze.” This area is home to charming old water towns with canals and arched bridges – a tranquil contrast to the not-too-distant, electric Shanghai.
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Taiwan (3 days)
This island is surprisingly diverse and contains a range of nature-based activities, 5,000 temples and a rich culture that embraces the history of 14 aboriginal tribes.
$500-$800 per person per day. Land only, double occupancy.