Temples, Palaces, Terracotta Warriors, and the Yangtze River: A tour through 中 国 (China)
Travel pictures from China
by Dr. Günther Eichhorn
In March/April 2000 I spent 3 weeks in China. It was not at all what I expected. I expected to have the feeling of being in a communist country that I knew from East Germany before the re-unification. It was nothing like that. The people dress and behave like anywhere in the USA. You can buy anything you want in the department stores (unlike in India). The traffic jams are like here in the USA, maybe somewhat worse because of the many bicycles. And on every other corner is a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a McDonald (sorry, no Burger Kings yet ). I was completely free to do whatever I wanted, there were no restrictions. I talked with quite a few Chinese. One thing I heard frequently was that they wanted to spend some time in the USA. It seems that this is only a matter of having enough money. Once they have enough money (on the order of $5k to $10k it seems), they seem to have no problem getting permission.
Altogether this tour was a memorable trip. The tour was organized by Pacific Delight Tours, a tour organizer for China. It was very well organized. We didn't have a tour guide for the whole trip. A local guide would pick us up at the airport or train station, guide us for the few days that we spent in that city, and then drop us off at the airport/train station. At first I was a little concerned about this, fearing that somebody might drop the ball and we end up in an airport with nobody to help us, but not so. Everything worked like clockwork, our local guides were always waiting for us when we arrived. They were generally quite knowledgeable and spoke fairly good English. Some meals were included in the tour, but not all of them. There were two couples with me on the trip, one in their late 60's, the other a little younger. One couple was mostly on time, the other was mostly late. We missed one event because of her being late. The worst part was the time they spent on shopping. We spent untold hours in shops, by the end of the trip I was pretty tired of spending time in shops. Altogether, I can recommend this organization.
The first 5 days I spent in Beijing. I visited the Temple of Heavens, the Summer Palace, and the Forbidden City. These imperial buildings are quite impressive. The Temple of Heavens and the Summer Place are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I also visited an impressive Tibetan Buddhist Temple. A stop at Tiananmen Square was also included, as was a tour through the Hutongs, the old residential buildings. These small one-story buildings, usually arranged around an inner courtyard, are disappearing fast. One day I did the excursion to the Great Wall. The Great Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is quite impressive. What was unexpected there was the fact that the Great Wall is not just one single continuous wall. It branches in some places, and has double or triple rows of walls that were build on after the other as the Chinese empire expanded. Unfortunately it was quite hazy because of the weather and pollution, which made it difficult to see much of the Great Wall. Also the trees had no leaves yet, which made the whole area look rather drab.
A familiar urban legend has it that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. This is of course not true. The Great Wall is much too narrow (some 4-5 meters (13-16 feet)) to be seen from any large distance. You have a better chance of seeing the Great Pyramids in Egypt, or any large building for that matter.
One memorable part of the trip to the Great Wall (and of most of the places that I visited) are the street vendors. They sell with a vengeance, and they don't take no for an answer very easily. Around the Great Wall they were hawking T-shirts for $1, baseball caps for $1, and similar stuff. "Genuine" Rolex watches (yeah sure) were to be had for $5.
The persistent selling went so far that in many places there were separate entrances and exits to attractions for tourists and for Chinese. The entrances and exits for tourists lead through a souvenir store, the Chinese could get in and out without having to go through the store.
From Beijing I went to Hangzhou and to Suzhou. These two small cities (each around 1-2 million inhabitants, which is a small city in China) are famous for their gardens and parks. The Classical Gardens of Suzhou in Suzhou are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These gardens and parks are 700+ years old. They are very beautiful. When I was there it was drizzle and fog most of the time. This created atmosphere that is hard to describe. It was probably more intriguing and enchanting to see these parks and gardens through the mist and drizzle than in bright sunlight.
From Suzhou I went to Shanghai for one and a half days. This is a fascinating city. Again it is quite western in appearance and in the way people live and go about their daily business. The most memorable part of Shanghai is the Museum. It is the most impressive museum that I have ever visited. It is fairly new. It is very well laid out and contains everything from Stone Age artifacts to recent items. You rent a cell-phone-like contraption that lets you input a number and then tells you the information about that particular piece. All the important pieces in the museum have such numbers. This is much better than guides that go through the announcements sequentially and you have to try to follow the descriptions. With this system you can hop, skip, and jump through the museum and always get the right description. These announcers come in many languages. I had one in English and I can say that it was extremely good. It must have been recorded by a native English speaker. The information given is concise and extensive. I wish more museums had systems like this. Another item worthwhile seeing is the Buddha temple with the Jade Buddha. I also visited an afternoon school. In that school children spend the afternoon to learn different arts (singing, musical instruments, dancing). It was quite impressive what these children could do.
From Shanghai I flew to Wuhan to start the five day cruise on the Yangtze through the Three Gorges. This is quite captivating scenery. The cruise ended in Chongqing. Going upriver, the Three Gorges are the Xiling Gorge, with 76 km (47 miles) length the longest of the gorges, the 40 km (25 miles) long Wuxia Gorge, and the 7 km (4.3 miles) long Qutang Gorge, the narrowest of the three. Large ship traffic is one-way only through that gorge, so ships have to communicate with each other as to who can enter the gorge. I went on several excursions, the most memorable one was by hand-pulled boats into a narrow side gorge, famous for its hanging coffins.
One of the highlights on the Yangtze is of course the Three Gorges Dam Project. This is a massive project, building the largest dam in the world. It will raise the water level by over 110 meters (360 feet). There are four main benefits from the dam:
The lower Yangtze experiences devastating floods every few years. Just 2 years ago there was a flood that devastated much of the area on the lower Yangtze.
The reservoir will allow much larger ships to travel upstream to Chongqing. Since commerce in the whole area depends very much on ships on the Yangtze, this will greatly improve the local economy.
The water from the reservoir will be used for irrigation of important agricultural areas on the lower Yangtze.
The dam will have 24 turbines with 400 MW each! This will yield a total power output of almost 10 GW. This will be very important, especially in light of the extreme air pollution in many parts of China because of power generation from sulfur-loaded coal.
Currently the main dam is being built, while a side channel carries the water and the ship traffic. In 2003 the main dam should be completed, and the side channel will be closed. Ships will have two ways to pass through the dam area, a five-stage lock and a ship elevator. Going through the lock will take 3 hours and will be free. Going through the ship elevator will take 20 minutes, but will cost money. I visited the construction site and it is HUGE.
The cruise ended in Chongqing. There I visited the zoo to see the pandas, Lesser Pandas (Ailurus fulgens, german: Kleiner Panda, french: Petit panda) well as the Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, german: Großer Panda, french: Panda géant). That was the only time I saw animals. There are no animals (other than birds) in the wild it seems. They have all been eaten. This is the one thing that I missed in China, to see wildlife, since this is usually the most important part of my vacation trips.
From Chongqing I flew to Xi'an, the old Chinese capital. This is where they discovered the Terracotta Warriors in 1974. They date from the Qin dynasty (221 BCE - 206 BCE). If you visit anyplace in China, this one is a must. There are some 7000 of the statues. The statues were almost all broken shortly after they were put in place when the emperor that had built them fell out of favor. They have been excavated in three pits. In the first pit the statues have been reconstructed and set up as they were originally. In the second pit they were left more like they were found so you can see what they looked like when they were first excavated. The third pit is much smaller and has some reconstructed statues, including horses. Photography is not allowed in the excavation pits, but everybody takes pictures. It seems that they used to be quite strict about that and removed your film from your camera when they caught you. By now they don't take it very seriously anymore. Also near Xi'an is an excavated Stone Age village with several remnants of buildings and several graves with excavated skeletons.
Xi'an had the most impressive artifacts, but it also had the most impressive (and oppressive) air pollution. Four of the five people in my tour group got sick there. At times it felt like I was breathing acid fumes. It was REALLY bad.
From Xi'an I flew to Guilin. This area is famous for its scenic limestone karst formations. It is quite impressive. I was on a one-day cruise on the Li River through the karst area. Part of the visit in Guilin was a visit to an old village (with 200 year old wood buildings) that is being kept in its original state. It is like a museum village. People there work in their old trades and farm the fields as they did years ago. One thing that was unusual was the exclusive use of natural fertilizer from the village in the surrounding fields.
From Guilin I flew to Hong Kong, the last part of the tour. China itself was very western in appearance. This of course goes even more so for Hong Kong. It is like any other big city in the world. Hong Kong Island is quite scenic, and Aberdeen harbor with the Sampans and the house boats is interesting, but for the most part it is just a regular big city.
I went out most evenings and tried to find local bars in order to talk with local people. Throughout the whole trip they were very friendly everywhere. I spent several very interesting evenings with local people talking about all kinds of things. Most of the time this had to be done through the dictionary, since many of them spoke only very little English. But with enough efforts on both sides I had a great time talking with them by looking up individual words in the dictionary and putting them together to convey what I wanted to say or ask and translate their answers and questions. It was very interesting and informative.
In June 2004 I visited China again. This time I went to Chengdu to the Wolong Panda Reserve, to Tibet, and to Beijing. China had changed quite a bit. In particular Beijing, there were no more bicycles on the roads, they are not allowed anymore. I have integrated the pictures from this second trip with the ones from the first one.
The Wolong Panda Reserve near Chengdu is one of the last places where Giant Panda live in the wild. The Wolong Panda Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can't get to the wild Panda, only the ones in the zoo of the reserve. When I visited there were six baby Pandas playing around. They were about 6 months old. It was fun to watch them.
The people in that area are one of the many minorities in China. I walked around a bit in the area. It is not a very developed area, mostly small farmers. Chengdu on the other hand is one of the larger cities in the area with several million people living there. The pollution in the area is pretty severe in some places.
One advice that I learned the hard way: Bring plenty of cold and flu medication, especially cough suppressant with you, and I mean lots, and lots of Aspirin. Almost everybody gets a severe cold or a flu. On my trip to India the year before I had 3 colds in 3 weeks, each lasting for about 5 days, with about 2 days in between. Almost everybody in that tour at one time or another got sick with a nasty cold, some just as long as I did. I ran out of cold medication pretty soon and had to buy some stuff locally. I couldn't get the right medication, so I suffered from the symptoms quite severely. For this trip to China I thought I was prepared and had plenty of cold medication. That time I got a flu and ran out of Aspirin to keep the fever down. Again I had to resort to local Aspirin. But with flu and cold medicine, cough suppressant, and Aspirin to keep the fever in check, I was just fine this time. This is something that happens to almost everybody and it can ruin your vacation if you are not prepared. But if you are prepared, and can keep the symptoms in check, you are OK. You can cure it completely when you get home if necessary, but you don't want to mess up the vacation because of a cold.
Here are some of the pictures I took on my trip.I have some nature pictures in separate pages:
Nature in China
Birds in China