5,000 Years to China

Rosemary Pitfield

Shanghai at night, Iakov Kalinin / shutterstock.com

The National Association of Federal Retirees has partnered with an exciting new tour company providing unique tour packages to China. Each one features deluxe accommodations, fine dining, exceptional sightseeing tours and professional customer-focused service at competitive prices. Nexus Holidays is backed by China Travel Service, the largest tour operator in China, with offices and branches in all major Chinese cities and two Canadian cities —Toronto and Vancouver. Learn more from Nexus Holidays.

Travelling to China isn’t for everybody — if you’re looking for relaxation, you might want to consider another destination. But if it’s on your bucket list, it’s worth every penny. With almost 5,000 years of history behind it, China offers the adventurous traveller a chance to dive into the unique culture, archaeology and cuisine of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

Be prepared though — China is not yet barrier-free.

As with any adventure, travelling in China takes patience. It isn’t ready yet to provide full service for tourists with mobility issues; many of the ancient sites have stairs and no wheelchair access. You can hire someone to push your wheelchair but you may not be able to get into all venues. Toilet facilities can be awkward for women; many locations only have a hole in the ground and no support rails to grab on to while you squat. If you’re thinking about a China tour, please talk to your travel agent about any mobility issues you may have to determine whether the tour can accommodate your needs.

Tiananmen Square
TonyV3112 / shutterstock.com

Experience Tiananmen Square

Your first tour starts in Beijing’s heart —Tiananmen Square, the scene for massive parades and gatherings, the fourth-largest city square in the world. This is where, in 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Tiananmen Square is bordered to the north by Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, to the west by the Great Hall of the People, and to the east by the National Museum of China.

Discover Beijing

From Tiananmen Square, you’ll walk to the Forbidden City — the secret face of ancient China and an ideal place to begin your discovery of Beijing. With more than 9,000 rooms and covering over 250 acres, this massive palace was built between 1406 and 1420. It burned down and was rebuilt, sacked and renovated four times, so most of the architecture you’ll see today dates to the 18th century and the Qing Dynasty. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes: Your tour will last about three hours and you’ll be expected to walk the entire way — at least 10,000 paces. You’ll get a chance to look into many of the different rooms and areas of the Forbidden City, but don’t expect to see it all. It’s far too vast.

Once you’ve finished the tour, your bus will take you to a local restaurant for lunch — either local cuisine or the famous Beijing Duck, an exquisite dish that takes hours to prepare and is worth every minute of the wait.

During your stay in Beijing you’ll get a chance to see the Temple of Heaven. Built between 1409 and 1420, the temple is one of Beijing’s most beautiful and culturally significant structures — the place where China’s emperors once communicated directly with Heaven. You’ll also be given an opportunity to attend the Golden Mask Dynasty, an original, large-scale Chinese musical production that features traditional dances, acrobatics and costumes, dazzling lighting and amazing special effects.

Great Wall of China
zhu difeng / shutterstock.com

Face the Great Wall of China

Day two of your tour will take you to the Great Wall, one of the wonders of the world — over 6,000 kilometres of packed earth and stone, five to eight metres in height. It’s sometimes described as the longest cemetery on Earth because an estimated million people died building it. There are eight sections of the Great Wall crossing the northern part of Beijing: Badaling, Juyongguan, Huanghuacheng, Jiankou, Mutianyu, Gubeikou, Jinshanling, and Simatai. Most of the Great Wall sections in Beijing are well preserved, with many relics dating from the Ming Dynasty. 

On your way to the Great Wall you will be taken on a tour around many of the 2008 Olympic buildings — including the splendid Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, where the giant Olympic Torch can be seen.

Just before you arrive at the Great Wall you’ll visit the government-owned jade factory where the 2008 Beijing Olympic medals were made. You’ll see how jade is carved and have an opportunity to purchase a variety of pieces, including large sculptures that can be shipped back to Canada for you. (You’ll be expected to bargain for whatever you want to buy, but don’t worry —  your guide can help you get a good price.)

If you want to climb the steps to the Great Wall, be prepared for uneven terrain and varying heights on each step. The stone treads are well-worn and may be quite slippery, so wear sturdy hiking shoes. For hot weather, be sure to bring sunblock, sunglasses and water. For cold days, wear a hat and warm coat — the mountain winds can be quite keen.

In the afternoon you’ll be taken to a cloisonné factory where you’ll see how beautiful works of art are built out of enamel, glass, gemstones and metal. Then you’ll stop for lunch and have a chance to do a bit of shopping before the bus takes you back to the hotel.

Step back 2,000 years

Your third day starts with a flight to Xi’an, the first Chinese city to open its doors to the world during the Tang Dynasty, and the capital of 11 dynasties for more than 2,000 years. In Xi’an you will be met by a new local guide who will take you to the fascinating Shaanxi Provincial Museum, which houses a collection of more than 370,000 precious cultural objects.

Next stop after the museum is the 36-metre high Bell Tower in Xi’an, the largest and best-preserved tower in China. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), when each Chinese city had a bell tower and a drum tower, the Xi’an Bell Tower stands in the centre of the city at a point from which four main avenues are laid out — East, West, South and North. You can wander for miles along the tower wall or wait patiently for a glimpse of the pomp and pageantry of the afternoon changing-of-the-guard.

Be awed by the Terracotta Warriors

The following day is dedicated to one of the most amazing finds of the 20th century — the Terracotta Warriors, a collection of clay sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. More than 8,000 soldiers were buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC to protect him in the afterlife. An early-morning bus ride takes you to a terracotta factory where you’ll find life-size replicas of the warriors, their horses and chariots. Attached to the factory is a store offering a large selection of reproductions, with options to fit any budget.

From the factory you move on to the Terracotta Warriors and Horse Museum, housed in a series of airplane hangars and buildings. Be sure to have your camera ready when you walk in — the size and scope of the vast collection is breathtaking when you first enter the hangar. You can walk through the museum’s gardens — about a half-mile hike — or take a golf cart to the main square.

After the tour, you’re off to a local restaurant nestled among many shops. In the evening you can stroll through the lively Muslim Quarter, sampling the delights of the food markets, then attend a Tang Dynasty Dinner Show and enjoy a special Dumpling Banquet.

Cruise on the Grand Canal

Next morning you’re back on a plane, travelling this time to Shanghai and then to the beautiful waterside city of Suzhou — the “Venice of the East.” Praised as an earthly paradise since ancient times, Suzhou is an extraordinarily elegant city built around the Grand Canal, the longest canal in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While in Suzhou, don’t miss your chance to visit the Garden of the Master of the Nets, one of the four greatest Chinese gardens.

After a boat cruise along the Suzhou portion of the Grand Canal, you move on to the famous Silk Exhibition Center. Here you will see how silk is manufactured and have the opportunity to shop in the government store attached to the factory. You’ll find exceptional deals on silk duvets, pillows and bedding and a vast array of silk garments, including traditional Chinese jackets. (Good news: All products purchased at the silk factory are tax-exempt, so they’re not included in your personal exemption limit upon your return to Canada.)

Witness the birth of Buddha

After a little shopping comes lunch, then everyone’s back on the bus for Wuxi, one of the oldest cities in China — a unique water village in the centre of China’s Yangtze Delta — and home of the Grand Buddha at Ling Shan. One of the largest Buddha statues in the world, the bronze Grand Buddha stands 289 feet high and weighs more than 700 tons. You can climb the 217 steps to the feet of the Buddha, where you can look back over the 74-acre Buddha wonderland.

One of the feature attractions at the park is a musical fountain reproducing the miraculous birth of Shakyamuni, the Buddha. The fountain is built around a round pool with a giant bronze lotus. When the music “Birth of Buddha” plays, the lotus gently blooms and a 23.6-foot-tall gilded statue of Sakyamuni rises from the centre. The nine dragons around the pool spout water to give Sakyamuni a bath, and the statue revolves 360 degrees. The lotus closes when the music fades out, and pure water comes out from the mouths of the eight phoenixes around the pool. It is said that you and your family will be blessed if you drink the water.

Revel in traditional Chinese arts

Across a greenbelt to the southeast of the Grand Buddha lies the Brahma Palace, another local landmark. With 70,000 sq. metres (83,719 sq. yards) on its three floors, the majestic palace offers a classic expo on the profound Buddhist culture and the brilliant traditional art of China.

The symmetrical palace is built of stone, with grand halls, high pillars, wide girders and towering domes. The white jade elephant in the lobby is a sacred Buddhist symbol. The huge oil paintings on the wall along the corridor depict the development, communication and spread of Buddhism. The corridor and the interior tower hall are delicately decorated with exquisite Dongyang woodcarvings made from precious nanmu wood. All the girders and columns are carved with exquisite patterns or depictions of Buddhist stories. Stand in the tower hall and look up at the vault — you’ll see an enormous mural painting called “Celestial View.” The Golden Wheel Buddha sits in the centre of the painting, surrounded by the sun, moon and seven major planets, as well as the zodiac. Twenty-eight ancient Chinese constellations are scattered among the circles. The whole painting, done in the Tang Dynasty style, shows an ethereal scene of heaven and exemplifies Buddhism’s stunning religious art. The Brahma Palace also houses a splendid collection of refined relief, first-class lacquerware, cloisonné and porcelain. The most eye-catching item is the palace’s treasure — a grand coloured glaze craftwork called “Worlds in the Lotus.”

Re-enter the 21st century in Shanghai

Your last two days in China will be spent in Shanghai, where you can enjoy a leisurely walk along the famous Bund, a mile-long district on the Huangpu River waterfront. The Bund features stunning architecture, spanning Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Classicism and Renaissance styles that stand in stark contrast to the modern cityscape of the Pudong district located on the east bank of the Huangpu River. The Pudong features some remarkable examples of 21st century commercial architecture and some of Shanghai’s best-known modern buildings.

Your can spend your afternoon shopping on the Nanjing Road, one of the world’s longest, busiest and most famous shopping districts, 5.5 kilometres long. Later in the day, you’ll visit another of the four greatest Chinese gardens — the Ming Dynasty Yuyuan Garden, a serene space surrounded by an ancient wall, isolated from the bustle of nearby shops and markets.

In the evening, you will be treated to a banquet of Shanghai cuisine and an optional Huangpu River night cruise. Here, you can soak in the night lights of the Bund and the Pudong, and the marvelous, romantic contrast between new and old.

Your last day in Shanghai is all yours — spend it however you wish. You can tour the shopping district or take a quick ride on the bullet train, which reaches a speed of 350 kmh. Or you can kick off your hiking shoes and enjoy the luxuries of your five-star accommodations — perhaps a day-long session in the spa — before making your long journey back to Canada the next day.