By Terri Colby, Special to Tribune Newspapers
January 8, 2014
China is big country. almost as large as the United States, with must-see sights -- the Great Wall, the Yangtze River gorges, the skyscrapers of Shanghai and the terra cotta warriors -- separated by hundreds of miles.
That poses the traveler's perpetual dilemma: How to see as much as possible without spending most of your time in transit.
China today has a domestic airline network not unlike that of the U.S., a river-cruise industry and, most recently, the beginnings of a high-speed rail network like those in Europe and Japan.
On a two-week trip in October, we sampled both the fast and the slow. Quicker has its obvious merits, but sometimes slower can be better. And sometimes what is meant to be fast isn't always so, even in an authoritarian country like China.
We flew into Shanghai, China's financial center and, with 23 million people, its largest city. We spent a few days checking out its cosmopolitan flavor, historic European influences mingling with modern architecture and a building boom. Construction cranes must be the most common bird in Shanghai, keeping watch over the blocks upon blocks of apartment buildings to keep up with the demographic tsunami that is modern China and its 1.3 billion people.
Our next destination gave us a taste of when fast is slow. Our flight from Shanghai to Yichang, a distance of 710 miles, was supposed to take about 2 hours. But there was a long drive to the airport, then a delay of well over three hours. But the airline gave plastic-wrapped meals to the passengers waiting at the gate. The people-watching was fun. And never before have I been anywhere where agitated travelers called police, who came to the gate where delayed passengers were waiting, heard complaints about the delay and talked to the airline agents before walking away.
But we made it to Yichang for the first of four nights aboard the Victoria Anna cruise ship, which would take us about 400 miles upriver on the Yangtze.
Anyone traveling to China should spend part of the time cruising the Yangtze. The slower pace of the river cruise is a good counterpoint to China's huge cities and crowded tourist attractions. And along the Yangtze is where you will see the Three Gorges, which have long transfixed painters and poets as well as travelers. Jagged, mist-covered mountain peaks top rock walls rising steeply from the river surface on both sides.
The Victoria Anna holds about 260 passengers in 133 cabins, each with its own small balcony so you can mingle or not as you glide through the stunning landscape. There are large outdoor and indoor public viewing areas as well, the better for moving around to get the best photos.
Most of the cabins are small, with the beds taking up most of the space. But the public spaces are accommodating, and the food is decent, a mix of Chinese dishes and more typical Western fare, such as baked chicken with roasted potatoes.
Some shore excursions were included; others required an extra fee.
My favorite was a trip to the Tribe of the Three Gorges, a Disneyesque village that features local people dressed in historic costumes re-creating days gone by. My husband thought it was too staged, but I appreciated the colorful costumes against the natural landscapes, which weren't altered. My husband's favorite shore excursion was a visit to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power project in the world. It's an impressive site, but I thought that actually traversing the dam's locks at night in the Victoria Anna was more memorable. I felt as if I were in a sci-fi movie as the boat moved up slowly under the glare of bright, fluorescent lights, mammoth concrete walls of the locks, close enough to touch. We both appreciated a trip to Fengdu, where we walked the streets and visited the local market.
The cruise ended in Chongqing, where we stopped only to head to the airport for a flight to Xian and its famed terra cotta warriors. No airport delays this time meant that we were able to explore the ancient Chinese capital's wall, built during the Ming Dynasty. Also on this first day in Xian, we sampled some of the dumplings for which the city is famous. Don't miss the Da Fe Chang restaurant, where the warm, soft pillows of dough look like tiny handmade purses.
The terra cotta warriors are thousands of life-sized soldiers, chariots and horses made in about 200 B.C. for the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The soldiers, discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974, are on display, some in the original places where they were discovered, others in a museum.
Next up was Beijing, China's capital, with 21 million people. This is where you go to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. In Beijing, what you think is going to be fast is sometimes slow. With 5.5 million cars, traffic can be terrible, and a half-day trip to see the Great Wall can turn into an all-day excursion with most of the time spent in the bus.
We were lucky to have a clear day when we were scheduled to visit the Great Wall, with little of the air pollution that had plagued some of our other excursions in Beijing. The traffic was a hassle, but do what it takes to see the Great Wall. Even with the crowds that are nearly always there, this historical monument resonates, exhibiting a link between the past and the present that is palpable.
The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square are also must-visit sites on any China trip. I found the Beijing Zoo to be lackluster and only worth the trip if you feel a need to see the giant pandas.
We took the bullet train, traveling at speeds of almost 200 mph, for our return from Beijing to Shanghai. The train looks a bit like a wingless airplane with its streamlined nose. But there are distinct advantages to the train: few weather delays, more spacious and comfortable seats and the convenience of train stations that are closer to city centers than airports.
A flight from Beijing to Shanghai takes about two hours as opposed to about five hours by train to cover the nearly 700 miles. The trains aren't necessarily cheaper than air, but it's hard to compare prices because there are four categories of train tickets and because airline ticket prices fluctuate so much. But as an example, for a March departure from Beijing to Shanghai, bullet train ticket prices were $93, $156 or $176, depending on class. Airfares on that date varied by time of day and airline but ranged from about $100 to as much as $189 for the one-way ticket.
If you go
Our trip was arranged by Pacific Delights Tours (pacificdelighttours.com). For 2014, prices for the 12-night Historic Cities and Yangtze River Cruise tour begin at $2,199 per person based on double occupancy.
Flights: Many major carriers travel to Beijing and Shanghai. It costs a bit more to fly into one and out of another, but depending on your travel plans, it may be worth the money.
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