Let me start this article by stating the obvious: I strolled through Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City, I walked on the Great Wall of China, I wandered among the Terracotta Warriors and I dined on Peking Duck in Peking. Not so bad…and as you will quickly understand, perspective is necessary!
Terracotta Warriors Xi’an, China
My China journey on the Windstar Star Legend continued, but with the focus now on the land tour. Fortunately, our truly excellent guide was onboard the Star Legend and provided a couple of very interesting lectures; the first one being sort of a China 101 course and the other being a China 101A course disguised as a Question and Answer Period…a good idea to engage the guests. (I wish the Destination Manager has introduced me to him as I was totally unaware he was on the ship until the last two days…a lost opportunity!)
He introduced such simple Chinese perspectives as:
–Why do Westerners use a knife when the kitchen should have already cut the food into the proper sizes?
–Why serve me a huge plate of food that I could never eat for $5.00 when you should serve me the amount of food I could reasonably want for $3.00?
Some more complex topics that are difficult to discuss due to Chinese Government concerns such as politics and economic differences were also touched on, but always with an approach that nothing “inappropriate” was to be pushed. Another introduction to China!
Unfortunately, there were a total of 38 on this tour, which is far too many as a general matter and most certainly for an expedited and multiple air travel itinerary over three plus days.I was the youngest of the guests, and with the average being in the 70’s and topping out at a 91-year-old blind woman accompanied by her daughter, logistics were a significant issue.
Simply put Windstar blew it.There should have either been a limitation on the number of guests or there be two groups, preferably split into an active and slower paced ones. Even two tour guides would have assisted (which was the case for our almost one day in Xi’an).
Ancient wagon wheels at the City Wall Xi’an, China
The biggest problem is, of course, that the tempo of the tour is determined by the slowest and/or most physically challenged of the group, no matter how personable or sweet. So with a significant number of elderly infirmities to go around, the pace was necessarily far slower than I would have expected on a Windstar tour and, to be sure, not exactly my Chinese cup of tea!
The other issue I had…and I want to get the complaints out of the way…is that the format – due to the demographic – essentially was:
Obviously, with so much time taken up by eating and bathroom breaks (always 15+ minutes), coupled with the truly horrific traffic (far worse than New York City) seeing things, no less engaging in the local culture, became almost a side note.
That said, the vast majority of the guests were extremely happy.In fact, when were at the Terracotta Warriors Museum I heard this non-stop and very fast, “Click. Click. Click.” Looking around I finally saw its source:The credit card machine working in overdrive!
I, again, have to note that our guide was excellent and he did his best under the conditions. In fact, I am confident I will use him as a private guide in the future!But when the poor soul has to go running back down the streets we had just traveled to find a missing guest (one that his spouse didn’t even notice was missing!) there is only so much that he could do.Ugh.
OK, with that all said, my normal “dive in” became a “tick it off the list” experience. I will explain.
We disembarked the ship, had to gather our luggage and board our tour bus.Curious as to how long this would take…after everyone was told to disembark as early and as quickly as possible…I was the first off the ship.It took 35 minutes to accomplish this simple task.It was a harbinger of things to come!
It took as a full 2.5 hours to drive from Tianjin, China to Beijing, China. We were fortunately met with sunny skies and really not much smog at all (though that would change later in our land tour). As I previously noted we made a short stop for a bathroom break along the way.
The most striking thing that I noticed on the drive is the number of tall, fairly non-descript, apartment buildings in the middle of nowhere, near somewhere and in the middle of almost everywhere. This real estate, and the “apparent wealth” they generate is amazing; sort of like Dubai on steroids…lots of steroids. You see the vast majority of these apartment buildings are vacant as they are investment properties. I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say, if the Chinese real estate market fails, so may well China…and that is, in significant part, why it “must” manipulate its currency. (If the real estate market falls 20%, it can cause the yuan to rise 21%, so that it can head off that disaster.) I’m not saying it is right, I’m just sayin’.
Beijing, China Central Business District
We arrived in Beijing, with even more apartment complexes (truly a mind-boggling number) and office buildings. Pretty impressive…or shocking, depending on your point of view.
It was then to the Temple of Heaven. It was nice, but with the mantra that this was a very shortened experience I would have preferred spending more time that day at the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square.And, of course, one of our group didn’t arrive at the meeting point at the designated time.
Temple of Heaven Beijing, China
By the way, we were fortunate that it was not peak season. There were crowds everywhere, but nothing like what one might expect in the summer months. While the Westerner peak season is spring and early autumn, the summer months are especially crowded with the newly mobile and traveling Chinese tourists…and there are about 1,500,000,000 people who may want to visit the same places you do. So, have patience and enjoy the frenetic experiences if they come your way.
We then headed to Hua’s Restaurant in the Hilton Hotel.It was a very nice upscale Chinese lunch, but with nothing shocking to Westerners; something that was perfect for a land tour.I would have preferred a shorter lunch, but the group was happy and, frankly, a rest period was appreciated by quite a few after the long bus ride and sightseeing.
Tiananmen Square is a vast open space surrounded by buildings of importance including the main Gate to The Forbidden City
Finally, we hit the spots where I wanted to get a better understanding of…and what I got was a bit more of an understanding of security in China. As we approached Tiananmen Square there was a security check point and I noticed lots of cameras, police and military. While there is little fear of guns, bombs are obviously a serious concern with disposable lighters being forbidden pretty much everywhere. Anyway, I digress.
Tienanmen Square is truly the place of power and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum.Beside the vastness of the space (as pretty much every place we visited has as a component) putting the protests in more of a visual perspective was an important moment for me. Seeing the road where that student stood in front of the tank and was murdered gave me chills. It was not a topic, however, that was going to be discussed while we were there or, frankly, much at all as a group.
Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum Tiananmen Square
Hall of the People Tiananmen Square
It was then a walk through a pedestrian tunnel under the six lane and very busy roadway to the gate into The Forbidden City (that smelled like pretty much every subway tunnel in New York, if you know what I mean). One thing that struck me besides the military and police presence in the tunnel was the strict rule that you have to keep moving; no congregating or waiting for the slower members of the group. The sense of governmental insecurity/oppression is becoming palpable.
We then passed through the Gate with its giant portrait of Chairman Mao; facing more security into what I thought was The Forbidden City, but it was (my words) more like the suburbs.We passed through a number of gates, bought tickets, went through more security and…well, you get the picture.
A few things struck me as we passed through the various courtyards and saw these beautiful wooden buildings. I thought about the power, the suffering, the architectural genius, the vastness of the spaces, the paranoia, the royalty, the pomp and circumstance, the humanity and the inhumanity, and the insanity of it all.
The Forbidden City
Old meets new
And as we were to leave one of the buildings, one person went missing and when we went to the bus to finally reach our hotel we did, yet again, have someone straggling too far behind (again).Oh well.
Regardless, we reached China World Hotel (a Shangri-La property) and it is a five-star property and welcomed.Too bad we only have a night here (though we are returning after our trip to Xi’an). A hot shower, change of clothes and it was off to dinner.(By the way, you cannot drink the water in Beijing; something I found shocking in this very modern city.)
China World Hotel
We arrived at Duck de Chine; a very upscale restaurant specializing in Peking Duck; a beautify restaurant with private security. (See a trend?) We were seated at three large tables with a large Lazy Susan (very Chinese). I was to sit with our guide, but unfortunately one of the more elderly guests tripped and literally fell on his face and needed a seat quickly. Fortunately, the blood stopped and the dinner began and we all enjoyed it…including the injured!
Duck de Chine’s chef carving Peking Duck tableside
Excellent dish after dish arrived. Quite a show! And then: Peking Duck carved tableside. Yum! I mean how could you not appreciate Peking Duck in Peking. (Beijing has always been the city’s name, but the Portuguese mispronounced or heard it improperly.)
And, of course, I paired my meal with a seemingly Chinese wine labeled by the restaurant as 1949. (1949 is the year of the Cultural Revolution). Again, the wine was actually quite drinkable though not remarkable…and unlike any Cabernet Sauvignon I have had elsewhere.
It was then back to China World Hotel for a bit of work, sleep and packing up my backpack for a one-night stay in Xi’an.But before we fly there, we have some sightseeing to do. First up is a rickshaw (actually a pedicab) ride through Shichahai, one of the last remaining truly old areas of Beijing. I could tell that much of the area has been turned into a trendy area, but there were still some authentic areas and we did visit a local home (a hutong) for a bit; rather standard fare but the group really enjoyed it.
We then walked around a local lake for a bit before heading for the bus…after a bathroom break.
And you know what happened, right?We lost someone, but this time we “really” lost the person!I didn’t know our guide could run that fast.Herding cats!
We then visited one of the old city’s bell towers that has been converted into a tea house. Before clocks the citizens would be given the time in the morning by the ringing of its massive bell and in the evening by the drumming from its companion drum tower.
Bell Tower Beijing, China
As it was a beautiful Sunday morning, there were many people out and about, including a group playing hacky sack.
Playing hacky sack in the park
With the group so large and our being behind schedule we were given a truncated “tea ceremony” which would have been similar to the one I had in Shanghai with six teas and tastings of each. Why was it cut short? There needed to be time to purchase tea and “magic” cups whose artwork changes if the tea water is hot enough. Although I didn’t need a second tea ceremony, it would have been more of a “travel experience” if the shopping time was cut short instead. But, again, the group overall seemed pleased; possibly because they didn’t know any better.
After the shopping and another bathroom break, it was quite a long ride before we arrived at a restaurant I was really looking forward to: Brickyard. I won’t go into why I was looking forward to it, because it was a disappointment. And, we were served a very Western lunch. Huh? I have to admit that most in our group were happy to have it, but I was not…and it wasn’t that good. Oh well. I was glad lunch was over because it was too much time spent “near” The Great Wall and I wanted “on” The Great Wall!
I should note that we went to a more distant, and supposedly less touristic, portion of the wall known as the Mutianyu section. Not only was the drive there long, but getting to The Great Wall of China was a project.
We arrived at The Great Wall. Uh, no we didn’t.
We arrived at the ticket booth! (Bathroom break too!). Not yet!
We had to walk through a long walkway of stalls. Then we arrived at The Great Wall. Nope!
We arrived at the shuttle bus stop.So, we took the shuttle and arrived at The Great Wall. No, wrong again!
We walked up a steep stone walkway and arrived at The Great Wall. Seriously? You really thought so?
We then took a chairlift from, say 1960, and arrived at The Great Wall.Yup. Finally made it!
There is no question that it is an amazing structure, but I was struck by how many thousands of slaves were abused and died building it; even left inside the walls. I remembered reading about the feat of building the Brooklyn Bridge and now looking back hundreds and hundreds of years and the ruggedness of the mountains I am thinking, “No, building The Great Wall was a feat!”
The Great Wall of China
The vastness of The Great Wall of China is truly unbelievable. If you look into the distance you will see a total of seven watchtowers and there are many more between the ones you see.
By the way, The Great Wall is well known to be a security failure. It didn’t stop invasions! Is it a monument to Greatness? Slavery? Fear? Paranoia? Futility?
When you are done walking on the wall, there are two ways down:Chairlift or Toboggan. It isn’t really a toboggan, but rather a seat with a steering/brake stick on a stainless-steel track.While most apparently did the toboggan, I wasn’t going to risk all my camera equipment flying down that thing!
It was then time to head to the airport for our flight to Xi’an.We arrived at the Beijing Capital Airport about two hours before our flight.Between the traffic and our group’s limitations, better early than late was the pretty much the theme. (But, oh what could I have done with all this extra time?!)
One thing you need to know is that the Chinese equivalent of the United States TSA is a curious combination of high tech and third world.When you enter the airport you are put into a cordoned off area as they sniff for explosives. (See the excessive concern over bombs?) Once released and checked in you go through security.It is not simply a matter of removing your laptops, however.You have to take cameras, chargers, phone wires, hot spots, laptops, iPads and, frankly, pretty much anything else they want (two people in our group had to remove their jewelry from their bags). OH, and absolutely no lighters. But that is only for your “stuff”.
You walk through a scanner that will, invariably, go off (if it is even of interest to them).Then you are directed to stand on a box while they wave a wand all over you multiple times and then give you a very thorough and not terribly gentle pat/rub down.(I wore button fly jeans so I felt by the time the female officers were done checking me I should have left them a tip!)
As we would be arriving late, no dinner was being provided.I found a restaurant at the airport where I had some really good beef noodles!(BTW, China Eastern provides a hot meal and a bottle of water on the 1.5 hour flight.)
Airport Beef Noodles were pretty darn good
After arriving in Xi’an, we met our incredibly beautiful (but strictly party-line and “union”) additional tour guide, and then had a bathroom break (why use the plane’s toilet when you can delay getting to the hotel?), we hopped on our bus for the one-hour drive to our hotel, The Grand Melia. One of the highlights was driving into Xi’an and seeing the Chinese New Year’s light displays that were still, inexplicably, lit up. Truly spectacular! (I wish I could have gotten some better photographs, but by the time we checked into our hotel it was about 11:00 pm and the lights were turned off.
Xi’an’s Chinese New Year’s lights were still ablaze
The Grand Melia is a beautiful hotel with soaring ceiling in the rooms and a soaking tub in the shower room. Again, I would have liked to have spent more than a few hours there.
After breakfast it was off to the Xi’an City Wall.This was the first place I truly experienced the famous Chinese pollution.The haze and smell (akin to something burning) was inescapable.Even things fairly close looked a bit obscured.
Xi’an’s City Wall
Old meets new again
It was then a 1.5-hour drive to the Terracotta Warriors. After passing what seemed like endless high-rise apartment buildings countryside started to appear…and then the beginnings of a highspeed train link from Beijing to the ski area for the 2020 Winter Olympics and then things became more rural.
We finally arrived at the Terracotta Warriors. Wrong again! We arrived at the ticket book and then had to take a tram to then walk to the first and largest of the three areas; known as Pit 1, Pit 2 and Pit 3.
The Terracotta Warriors…thousands of them and each one is unique
Pit 1 is the one most everyone is familiar with and houses the vast majority of the Terracotta Warriors. It is an amazing site.
Literally none of the warriors have been found in tact and the majority are in hundreds of pieces; the result of peasant uprisings, fires and time
But again, no matter how artistically and historically these sculptures will blow you away…they truly will (as will the enormous amount of work needed to piece each figure back together), I kept thinking about the artisans that were killed after they made their creations.
A monument to an emperor?
A historical phenomenon?
An artistic statement unrivaled in time?
A tribute to those murdered making it?
A glorification of barbarism?
All of the above?
Regardless, I think I have settled on it being a tribute to the artisans that created so many incredible works of art.Still soaking it in.
It was then, in total juxtaposition, time to head to the Museum Shop where the credit cards were flying buying miniature warriors, jewelry, t-shirts, etc.This was – after over 20 minutes – followed by lunch at the site.It looked better than it was, but it was.
I did take the opportunity to try a third Chinese beer and, more importantly, some sort of “wine” that had some dried lizards in it.I mean it was called “Tokay”, which is a fine Hungarian wine…which I knew it wasn’t.But, as I couldn’t quickly find our guide, I figured at 10 yuan (about $1.50), why not?It wasn’t terrible; more like a grappa.
Not sure exactly what I drank, but it didn’t kill me and I don’t think it made anything work better!
The others at my table refused to try it at first, but then one by one they did. And that is how you open up people to trying those things that are initially uncomfortable. I wonder how many will mention it when they tell their travel stories to their friends.
Oh, yeah, there is no such thing as Chinese Tokay!
It was then off to brief visits to Pit 3 and then Pit 2.(They are numbered in order of discovery not relevance.)
About a half mile walk later we were back at our bus for our trip to the Xi’an airport.It is yet another massive series of structures with an insane roadway design. I am getting the feeling that the vastness of the spaces is a message to the Chinese people:“You are small and the government is very big and powerful. Don’t forget it!”
With more than enough time, and again with no dinner provided, I found a joint where I – using the point and pay method – enjoyed spicy tomato and egg along with chicken and rice
I went for local airport food. Others in my group went for Subway and McDonalds
before our 1.5-hour flight back to Beijing, another bathroom break, and then a 45-minute drive to the China World Hotel for our final night.
After checking in and bringing my bags to my room I headed down to the lobby bar for a Glenfiddich or two (poured as timidly as if I was in Scotland; as in a “wee dram”).I sat briefly with two from our group and then had a nice personal conversation with our guide before calling it a night and the end of my Windstar land tour.
I had the morning to relax and get some work done before heading to the airport. But when I opened my eyes I saw what truly horrible smog was like.The sun was out, but it wasn’t sunny. The buildings across the street were partially obscured and, even with the hotel’s air conditioning, my eyes and nose were burning a bit.
The sun was out, but the intense smog smothered everything in a brown blanket the burned my eyes and nose
What I will say is that the clear majority of our group was very pleased with the land tour and spirits in the bar were high. So, for most it was a success. For me I wish I spent less time eating (seriously, I just said that!), less time waiting, more time moving and, clearly more time, immersing in each location.
But, even with the misses I did get to experience some extraordinary things that most people never will. And, for that, I am extremely appreciative. Perspective!
Next up: Reflections of the entire experience on Windstar’s Star Legend China Exploration.
If you have any questions or wish to discuss booking your own Windstar Cruise, give me a call, drop me an email or send me a Facebook message!