If you'd like to get a feel for ancient China before you travel, then there are many great works of Chinese literature you could get involved with. However, if you'd like to understand the romantic soul of China on your trip then there's only one work you should consider; The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a tour-de-force of nonsense, magic, morality, legends, ambition, strategy, and more. It's one of China's most popular novels even today and considering it was written nearly 700 years ago that's an impressive feat.
About the Author
Your guess is probably as good as anyone's. The novel was attributed to a chap called Luo Guanzhong by Andrew Plaks. However no-one's entirely certain and your virtual tour of China within its pages won't give you any clear indication as to the author even if your speciality is Chinese literature.
What we do know is that it's a beast of a book. There are over 1,000 characters from Chinese history, 120 chapters and over 800,000 words. In Asian literature it's the equivalent of Shakespeare and it is dearly loved throughout China. It's probably best read in as short a period of time as you can manage so you don't trip up with the convoluted plot.
The story begins with the Yellow Turban Rebellion, when China is falling to pieces. Corruption abounds and the emperor is deceived by his trusted advisors and good people are suffering throughout the land. Rebellion breaks out and is brutally suppressed by the General; He Jin. However, he is soon murdered by the court eunuchs and as the army arrive to enact a massacre by way of revenge the young Emperor and one of his friends travel in secret from the palace...
Their escape is not an easy thing and they quickly fall into the hands of Dong Zhou an evil warlord. He captures the pair and replaces the actual emperor with his friend. The only thing that prevents Dong Zhou from succeeding in stealing the Chinese nation is a betrayal over a woman.
A brief tour of the nation reveals an ongoing civil war as nobles and warlords duke it out for territory. China is in complete disarray. The new emperor assisted by Cao Cao begins to fight back and slowly starts to consolidate his territory after an epic battle against a host that vastly outnumbers his own.
The story then progresses into mystical themes with a ghost and a magician influencing the outcome of one war and heaven interceding in another.
Cao Cao is forced out of his home but his military prowess enables him to win new lands. Then comes the Battle of Red Cliffs (the subject of a major Chinese motion picture this year) and some extraordinary tactics pay huge dividends for Cao Cao's enemy Liu Bei.
And so it continues... the scale of this story is absolutely enormous. It's highly intricate and amazingly detailed. If you want to immerse yourself in the culture of China there's no better place to start. Your China vacation will be all the richer for it. So if you're ready to take a trip to your local bookstore – we recommend that you try Moss Roberts' translation. It's widely recognized as the friendliest version for the foreign reader.
Travel in Tibet offers so many interesting places to visit that it can be hard to fit everything in. That should stop you from taking a trip to Namtso though. It's one of Tibet's natural wonders and a great place to get some peace and quiet on your China vacation.
The first thing to know about Namtso is that it's not on any bus routes. So you'll want to hire a taxi to travel out there, this should be pretty easy to arrange in Lhasa. The second and perhaps most important thing to know is that it is very high up. It sits at over 1,100 meters over “sea level” and as such you need to make sure you don't over exert yourself during the trip. Your Tibet tour is best spent without a visit to hospital for altitude sickness.
Namtso is the largest salt water lake in Tibet and the second largest in China. It's also at the highest altitude of any salt water lake in the world. The good news is that unlike many other of China's watercourses the water is also very, very clean and that means it may be the bluest water you ever see. There's an ephemeral quality to the sheen of the lake that you can't quite describe adequately with words. The mountain skies are almost always clear and there's something uniquely calming about the vista it presents.
Your tour of the lake should take in at least one of the five islands enclosed in its waters. The best of these is probably Liangduo. The unusual rock formations give this part of Tibet a very peculiar feel, some of the rocks look like people others like animals. The place is scattered with caves and grottoes and each is different and worth investigating. You'll find long, narrow chambers and vast open places. There are stalagmites and stalactites galore in some and in others the surfaces are almost smooth.
You'll also find naturally occurring stone ladders that we advise you don't try and climb. They may be tempting but you'll be a long way from medical care if you should trip and fall.
The best time to visit Tibet's greatest lake is in the summer. That's when the native wildlife comes to call. Fish leap from the water as if in celebration of the sun. Herds of Yak and cows arrive to graze open its shores. If you're really luck then you'll witness the migration of multitudes of different bird species and their song fills the air in a way to lift the saddest heart as they begin their travel to different corners of the continent.
If you should venture to Tibet in the Chinese year of the sheep then Namtso Lake will also play host to another kind of visitor. Monks and pilgrims travel from all over Tibet to perform a clockwise pilgrimage of its shores.
A tour of Tibet offers so many things to see and do that it would be easy to neglect the natural wonders in preference for the more famous man made sites. We think that a China vacation wouldn't be the same without a trip to Namtso Lake a natural paradise in Tibet.
If there's anywhere on a China tour that offers a more spiritual draw than Tibet, we don't know of it. A tour of Tibet is an absolute must for many travelers. On the edge of the Himalayas and steeped in Buddhism there's nowhere quite like it on earth. We know that for many people this will be the biggest highlight of a China vacation and we also know that the Potala Palace won't disappoint.
The Potala Palace
A Tibet tour starts in Lhasa, the largest city in the state. It's one of the highest places in the world and you'll need to take a little time to get used to the altitude before you do any strenuous activities. So take a casual stroll round the Palace rather than a run.
The Potala Palace was the winter palace of the Dalai Lama. It's recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. The buildings have been in use sing the 7th century A.D. The complex lies on the side of the Red Mountain at an amazing 3.7 km (that's 2.3 miles) above sea-level.
Your first view of the palace may leave you feeling that it was intended as a fortress, though one only the very brave would have been willing to assault. It is one of the most striking sights you can find on a China vacation. In fact it has always been a spiritual retreat rather than a place of war. The Red Palace was the first building to be built and was possibly overlaid on the ruins of a previous settlement. You'll want to start your trip here and take the time to wander the halls, libraries and chapels. Please don't forget that it is still used for worship and prayer and you should ensure that you dress respectfully and remove your shoes where others do.
In the Great West Hall of the Red Palace you'll find four chapels dedicated to the memory of Potala (he was the 5th Dalai Lama). All the cloth you find draped on the pillars and columns is specially made in Bhutan (the only country in the world to measure wealth in terms of the happiness of its citizens). That means the cloth has had an arduous trip indeed across the China border to make its way to the edge of the Himalayas.
Each of the chapels is unique in character. The North chapel has the Buddha and the 5th Dalai Lama side by side on ornate golden thrones. It's also home to an amazing library of ancient silken scriptures. The South chapel is a tribute to an Indian saint, Padmasambhava. There's a noticeable contrast between the holy and wrathful manifestations represented within. However, they are there to ward off demons rather than leave you with sleepless nights on your China vacation.
The East chapel is for the Gelug-branch of Buddhism and its “spiritual leader” (this is in inverted commas because technically the Dalai Lama still outranks him) Tsong Khapa. Check out the interesting use of materials for the statues here. The West Chapel is the final resting place of Potala, and is suitably ornate. His mummified body is held within the central stupa but you'll probably forget that in view of all the gold in the room. (There's over 3 tons of gold spread between 5 different stupas).
Don't miss the tomb of the 13th Dalai Lama, it was one of the last constructed monuments in the Great West Hall (it was made in 1933). It is an extraordinary tribute to the life of one man and was built from over a ton of gold and includes a mandala of over two hundred-thousand pearls. It's probably the most valuable religious monument you'll see on your Tibet tour.
Enjoy walking the three galleries, with their fine murals, statues, and well... souvenir shops. Though in fairness there may not be a grander or more ornate location for a souvenir shop in the world than the second gallery.
No Tibet tour is going to miss the Potala Palace. You'll never forget your China vacation after you've been there. It's an extraordinary place, part of one of the poorest places in Asia with a testament to the enduring power of faith. We'd also recommend you take a saunter round the gardens behind the chapels, which give you some peace and tranquility to properly organize your thoughts in the face of all the splendor inside.
A Tibet tour is a key part of many people's China vacations and one of the best places to learn about the region is in the Tibet Museum. It's important to acknowledge from the outset that there's a certain "clouding" of facts when it comes to the relationship between Tibet and China. That's because the museum is officially “a friendship” project constructed in the late 1990's as a form of aid for Tibet by the Chinese.
If you can ignore the politics, and we think you should, there's plenty of ways to make your trip to the museum a profitable one.
From the Outside
There's been a careful effort to ensure the museum is in keeping with traditional Tibetan architecture. So the building may be new but it's not unimpressive. The exterior is almost palatial and includes all the trimmings of beams, Buddhist patterns, etc.
Inside the Tibet Museum
Your tour through the history of Tibet begins with a journey into the distant past of the region. It starts in the Neolithic era nearly 50,000 years ago. You'll find tools and artefacts from the period and a detailed story of how the culture of Tibet integrated with the larger Indus River culture. You'll have the opportunity to indulge in a nice little exhibition of local geology too. The section is competed with a room full of native plant species that are well presented if a little less spectacular.
Then your trip takes you onto the political history section. Once again we'll note that China's influence here is pronounced. However, you can explore some of the earlier relationships between Imperial China and Tibet as well as seeing the “re-unification” treaty. The whole section is a little dry and if you're pushed for time you might want to travel onto the next section and skip it completely.
The best part of the museum is the Tibetan cultural section, here you'll find a lot of ancient treasures (including lots of gold work), as well as tributes to the arts. You'll be able to work your way through books, documents, music, and more as well as interesting nods to the theatrical tradition of the region as well. If you'd prefer your China vacation to be less arty then you can also examine the astronomy of the region (including some very early calendar development) and the evolution of Tibetan medicine.
The final section focuses on “the culture of the people” which is a bit confusing considering most people will feel they've already seen that in the previous section. However, it's an accurate description this is all about people and not about art. So you'll find that your tour of Tibet's costumes, traditional dress and development of communications within the region is every bit as interesting as the rest of the content. The Han Chinese influence in this area is also a little heavy-handed and may slightly overstate the case for saving the Tibetan people from themselves.
If you're looking forward to your Tibet tour then we highly recommend that you visit the museum during your stay. It's not perfect but a lot of effort has gone into making it an interesting, if not entirely accurate, interpretation of the region. It's also an interesting way to see how China is trying to overcome the difficulties in Tibet and that's something that might not be apparent elsewhere on your vacation.
Every China vacation offers the chance to travel round the country and witness some of the most amazing feats of man. Your China tour might take you to the three gorge sdam as part of a Yangtze River cruise, it might take you on the great wall the longest man made structure in the world, and so on... However, if there's one thing that China's famous for around the world, it's the country's uncanny ability to clone and copy just about anything.
In Chengdu they've taken this a step further and cloned one of the country's best known attractions: The Great Wall of China. Yes, that's right if your China tour doesn't give you a few days in Beijing then you can still grab a few photos of you and your friends walking the wall.
It looks just like the real thing, apart from being rather shorter and much, much cleaner (it takes time for bricks to age – and they've had only a decade's wear on the little wall). It's also much less crowded (at least so far) so you can take those photos a little more easily and there are very few touts around so you can enjoy the scenery.
Luodai Ancient Town
The best reason to take a trip to Jinlong though isn't the fake wall; it's the Luodai Ancient Town that you'll pass through on the way there. Most China tours don't spend too much time in Southern China, mainly because much of it's so new that there's not a huge amount to see. That means there's little chance of getting in touch with Hakka culture on your China vacation.
Luodai is the largest Hakka community in Western China and has a rather different culture to most of the neighbouring region. If you're lucky your trip will coincide with Chinese New Year when Luodai has a reputation as being one of the most welcoming places in the country during the Spring Festival.
It's a small place consisting of one main thoroughfare and 7 side streets. So it won't take long to explore. The best reason to travel to Luodai is the Hakka guildhalls which are majestic and the architecture is unusual. You'll also very much enjoy the wooden ancient appearance of most of the buildings that line the main streets.
There's a well in the center of the town that draws more visitors than it probably deserves (as there's nothing to see) but that's because it features in some ancient Chinese literature. You're better off walking out the gates of the city and taking pictures there. We'd also recommend a quick trip to the Hakka pagoda for a very well preserved (and not so crowded) temple location.
If you're lucky enough to hit town on the 15th of January you can take part in the ancient Hakka Fire Dragon Festival. Where traditional Chinese dragon dances are combined with onlookers shooting fireworks at them for wealth and fortune in the New Year.
In the summer you'll have to make do with the Water Dragon Festival instead, which is similar to the Fire Dragon Festival but fireworks are substituted with rather safer - water pistols.
If your China tour allows you could do much worse than take a trip to Luodai. It's a pleasant place to take a stroll around, you get to meet one of the unique minority cultures of China, and you can see the fake "Great Wall" too.
If you time your China vacation just right then you might be able to see one of China's most wonderful natural displays. You'll need to ensure that your China tour takes you to Chengdu in mid to late April, when the International Chengdu Peach Blossom festival is on. It's absolutely worth the trip, so here's a little background:
The Peach Blossom festival has a strong heritage and has been operating for nearly 25 years. The city wanted to celebrate its agricultural roots and in the interim has been determined to show that there is still a “green” element to China travel.
The Scale of the Festival
We're not talking about a few peach trees coming into bloom. We're talking millions of them, in fact in the most popular spot in Longquanyi District there are over 17 million trees covering over 260 square kilometers That's a scene to make anyone stand up and take notice. You can travel through the district and drink in the blossoms pretty much everywhere. In total there are over 50 million trees spread throughout the Chengdu region, so you won't be able to miss them if you're there at the right time.
Millions of people come from all over China to witness the emergence of the blossoms but thankfully because of the wide area they are spread over you won't have to trip over each other to get your own unique photo opportunity.
The festival is also the scene of some whacky attempts from China's expatriate community and one of the events that gains real attention is a Harrier style running race with hundreds of expats turning up to take part. Because exposure to foreigners in China's heartland is still a relative rarity many Chinese come just to see their first “laowai”. It's a great time to make friends with some locals.
There have been records broken at the festival; including perhaps unsurprisingly the annual attempt to make (and consume) the world's largest peach cobbler. This competition came to China through the efforts of an American peach blossom festival that is now twinned to the Chengdu event. So you might be able to catch a little something of “back home” if your vacation takes you there.
There's another good reason to time your trip to China for late April, because there's another wonderful floral event taking place in Chengdu at the same time. The peach blossoms majesty may have stolen the limelight but your China tour might also allow you to check out the Pengzhou Peony Fair at the same time – when the mountains are awash with these beautiful flowers.
This is an extraordinary opportunity on a China vacation ; agriculture is still the main cornerstone of the Chinese economy and the Chinese way of life. That's despite all the amazing progress in the industrial sphere. So between the Peach Blossom and Peony festivals you'll be able to experience real Chinese life up close and personal. You'll also enjoy the pride that Chinese people feel for their country and its natural wonders and maybe, just maybe gain an insight into a nation's soul that is all too often hidden away from the casual visitor.
When your China travel takes you to Chengdu there's more than just the occasional panda to see. In fact if your Yangtze River cruise has left you with a thirst for feats of engineering on a par with the three gorges dam, then you're in for a treat.
You see you can see many ancient works of art, and ancient buildings that must have required some form of relatively advanced engineering on your tour of China. However, it's something completely different to see engineering in motion in exactly the same way it would have worked 250 years before the birth of Christ.
The Dujiangyan Irrigation System
How do you water nearly 700,000 hectares of farmland? Well today that might be an easy task, you find a water source construct a few pumps and then add some serious lengths of hosepipe. Unfortunately that solution wasn't available in 256 B.C.
In Dujiangyan the water travels from Tibet into China and a cunning combination of natural topography and hydrology, and some neat tricks made by those long ago engineering graduates; allows all that farmland to benefit from controlled irrigation.
You won't see this on the Yangtze river cruise though, as it begins on the outlet of the Minjiang river. Where the locals once cut the Lidui platform to enable water flow and also to prevent serious flooding in the region. At the time the scale of the total irrigation wasn't quite so impressive and it wasn't for another 800 years that the Chinese began to rapidly increase the scope of the project. The irrigation system was tidied up into its present form (three major water-courses and three canals with a discrete number of branches) during the 10th century A.D.
There are two main components – the first is the Weir Works. This dominant component is the most spectacular part of the system. Your trip to it should give you a good idea of the huge volumes of water that are moved through the system. The second is the irrigation system itself which while less impressive to look at has the rather wonderful benefit of taking you into China's rural heartland.
Mount Qincheng is the dominant natural feature of that Chinese farming haven. It is an imposing sight and one that makes for some great pictures to share with your friends of your China vacation. However, it is also one of the holiest sites in Chinese Taoism and that means there are a fair few temples scattered on its flanks.
These temples are unusual in that unlike most Taoist temples in China, they don't reflect imperial court traditions of the time of construction. Instead they offer a unique peek into traditional Sichuan architecture. If you are pushed for time on your tour, then the most impressive of these temples is the Erwang Temple.
The Erwang Temple hangs over the river itself and appears to be in a position of leadership on the mountains side when viewed at a distance. Inside you'll find a recorded history of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System and water control in the area.
There's no doubt in our minds that a Yangtze River cruise can't be beaten if you're only going to see one river in China. However, if your China tour package offers the time to explore a little further afield then Dujiangyan and Mount Qincheng should definitely be high on your list of options.
Chengdu may hog the spotlight when it comes to Sichuan food but Chongqing offers the intrepid traveller a wealth of other opportunities to taste a different side of the region's cookery. Chongqing is a great place to stop and eat on a China vacation, and we've tracked down a few places that you might enjoy if your China tour package includes this giant Chinese city.
The Bohemian Restaurant, Shapingba District
We love this place more for the atmosphere than the food. It's just bizarre their interior decorator must have been given a fairly generous budget and been told; "fill the place with things you think are fun!" You'll find positively ancient Chinese telephone systems rubbing shoulders with all sorts of crazy novelty items. You'll also find a wealth of Chinese magazines dealing with every subject under the sun and even if you can't read Mandarin the pictures will keep you giggling for hours.
The food is just fine though not worth the trip on its own. There's a pleasant mix of China favourites and international classics and its not expensive but there's nothing to really write home about either. You'll be pleased to know that there's a full menu in English though.
Fish Eating Sheep, Zhujiang Garden Gate
If you'd like to see how far your money can go then this budget place is a great place to start. It's wildly popular with the locals so you might have to wait a while to get seated but that's half the fun – at least if you strike up an awkward Chinglish conversation with some of the other folk waiting too.
If your China vacation hasn't given you the opportunity to get close to some history with your food then it's here that Marco Polo's dish "Lazhillian" is best served in Chongqing. This is a great place to stop during your China travels as it's an enjoyably odd location with a great vibe.
Xiao Tian E, New Chongqing Square
There's hot pot and then there's Chongqing hot pot. The locals would be quite outraged if you didn't try hot pot in the city as it is considered to be the birth place of the dish. We thoroughly recommend a trip to Xiao Tian E even though we'll concede that it's not the most memorable of locations.
It's huge and usually packed with locals, expats and tourists alike which is a testament to the enduring popularity of its hot pot. If your China tour package only has limited time in Chongqing and you can't track down something a little more intimate the food is very, very good.
Hongyadong Dining Street
This isn't a restaurant as much as collection of restaurants. It's worth taking a camera with you as you'll be able to get some great shots of the “hanging attic” buildings that are unique to the ethnic minorities that run the show here. It's a great way to enhance your overall China travel experience while you dine.
Be warned that much of the Chinese food on offer here is seriously spicy so you might want to pick a restaurant with an English menu. Either that or stick to the plentiful street food (where you can see all the ingredients); grilled meats (on sticks), fried dough balls and interesting Korean delicacies are all easy to get your hands on safely.
Shunfeng 123, Nanbin Road
If you aren't going to fit Shanghai into your China tour, then Nanbin Road might be the second best thing – the area is known locally as "the bund". While it's not quite as impressive as Shanghai's offering it does offer lovely views over the Yangtze while you dine.
Take a trip to Shunfeng 123 and see how China's emerging elite spend their evenings. The food is traditionally Sichuan and the setting is (for China at least) intimate and pleasant. You're paying as much for the view as the food but it's very good food.
Street Food, Quanshuiji Dining Street
If you want that authentic China vacation then street food is a must and there's no better place to visit on your China tour than Quanshuiji Dining Street. It is the only place that you can find “Spring Water Chicken” in the whole of China too. The meat is boiled in spring water and complemented with spices, peppers and ginger – don't forget to blow on it before you eat it as it can be extremely hot.
If you travel to China because you have a certain fascination with the spiritual aspects of the country then you might want to check out the Porcelain Village on your China tour as it passes through Chongqing. Why? Because unlike the rest of China where you can explore Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism to your heart's content; Ci Qi Cou is one of the few places linked to a much earlier belief system; Baci.
Baci today is most commonly practiced in Laos and Thailand but its origins are in China. It's an ancient animistic belief and one which still leaves its mark on the overall Chinese psyche today. You'll find that it's designed to keep the “32 organs” of the body in harmony and maintain the spiritual well-being of the individual and their wider community.
There is no conflict between Baci and Buddhism and it is Buddhists that have kept the practice alive in Ci Qi Cou. You should find that your China tour allows you some time to talk to the locals and monks about the specifics of the Baci belief system and how to integrate into Buddhism so successfully.
What else is in the Porcelain Village?
Well firstly, it's a place with a long history and your trip will take you through over 1,000 years of Chinese culture. It sits to the east of the Jialing River and was a prospering port during the Ming Dynasty. In fact there's a local legend that says the very first Ming Emperor; Zhu Yunwen, once spent some time in the town disguised as a monk in the Baolun Temple. He's supposed to have changed the name to “Baiya” which means the “The town of hidden dragons” once he became emperor.
Sadly, for him during the Qing period the town became famous for pottery and porcelain and it was given a change of name to Ci Qi Kou (Porcelain town) during that period. However, if you travel to China to find the porcelain today you may find that much of it is imported from other parts of the country. That's because the town has now changed to become more of a tourist venue.
If you do take a trip to Ci Qi Kou then you'll want to check out the houses that are made of bamboo and timber. The striking white walls of the buildings are directly contrasted with bright doors and ornate latticed windows. Take time to travel down the lanes and enjoy the burgeoning artistic community springing up in them.
Take some time to wander Zhong's Compound; it was the home a famous eunuch who once waited on a Qing Dynasty Empress. The lady herself had a certain infamy but that didn't rub off on her servant who retired in these splendid apartments. You can find China's best architectural blend of Northern and Southern styles here.
Your tour should also take you into the collection of Bayu Dwellings a real reach into China's past and one of the most peaceful places in China. It's a fantastic retreat from the hustle and bustle of the rest of city life.
Wrap up your trip at the Bao Lun Buddhist Temple which is ridiculously ornate and the perfect spot for a ton of great vacation snaps. It is a working temple, so don't forget to take your shoes off if you want to go inside and dress modestly. One of the best things about this temple is that it's building doesn't contain a single nail and that makes it absolutely unique in China.
Ci Qi Kou is one of those really nice places that makes travel to China so worthwhile. It's not top of the usual tourist itineraries and thus offers you the chance to do something very different to other visitors to the region.
If you're passing through Chongqing on your China vacation, then you might want to take a side trip to one of the lesser known UNESCO world heritage sites. China has so much rich history that sometimes fantastic locations can be passed by as you travel to the best known places. However, it would be a real shame to miss out on the Dazu Rock Carvings which is one the most spiritual sites in China.
In the foothills of Chongqing in a place called Dazu County you'll find 75 individual sites that contain over 50,000 carvings between them. They date back to between 900 and 1300 A.D. and are considered to be the best surviving examples of Chinese carving anywhere in the world.
The biggest site and thus the most famous is the one at Beishan. If you take the time to travel there you'll find nearly 10,000 carvings in 2 groups side-by-side on the cliff face. This site is dedicated to themes from Taoism and Tantric Buddhism. If you have an English speaking China tour guide with you, they should be able to tell you the stories that go with the carvings, as they are engraved under each figure. There's quite a lot of detail and you can find out who each person was, what their beliefs were and their overall contribution to China too.
If you'd like to visit one of the smaller sites, then Shizuanshan allows you to see one of the rarest forms of carving as it's here that you will find Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism side-by-side. In fact as Confucianism was mainly concerned with the “here and now” and not so much the spiritual hereafter it can often be hard to connect with in the rest of China as it hasn't left such an indelible mark on the nation's architecture as the other two belief systems.
If your China vacation is for connecting with Chinese Buddhism then you might want to take a trip to Baodingshan which not only offers the ultimate Buddhist carvings, but also the opportunity to visit the Holy Longevity Monastery nearby. There are two groups of carvings on the sides of the gorge and in addition to the Buddhist perspective there are some interesting depictions of China's rural past there too.
The carvings in the area were begun back in the Tang Dynasty but the majority of them were created during the 9th century. The effort was led by a gentleman known as Wei Junjing and long after he had passed. People would travel to the area to contribute their own offerings. There are carvings from nuns, monks, ordinary folk and of course the gentry to be found. One monk, Zhao Zhifeng, spent over 70 years on Mount Baoding developing his offerings – which is some serious commitment.
The relative isolation of the sites at Dazu kept them from being damaged during the excesses of the cultural revolution. The area hasn't been open to foreigners for too long either, and it wasn't until 1980 that Westerners were permitted to travel there. That means Dazu offers a unique perspective for a tourist in China.
We'd argue that this area is one of the most unspoilt UNESCO heritage sites in the nation. A China vacation, that takes the time to take in Dazu, is going to be one that leaves the visitor with real memories and a great insight into China's past.
If your China vacation is going to take in Chongqing then you'll want to get the most out of your time in the city. You might not know it but there are serious discussions under way to move the seat of Chinese government to the city, and one day it may be China's capital. That means if you travel there today you may well be far ahead of the huge numbers of foreign visitors who'll be heading there in the event of a move.
We've put together a quick overview of some of the less well known sites of Chongqing, for you to get the most out of your China tour:
The lovely environment of lush Chinese vegetation, stone walkways and a gentle steam rather belie the ominous history of Gele Shan. Once a local warlord's home in 1939, it was converted into a prison by the Dai Li. The Dai Li, for those who don't know, was the brutal enforcer of the regime that would flee to Taiwan in the aftermath of the communist revolution.
It was used by the United States during the 2nd world war as a spy training agency from 1941 to 1945 and then sadly became a prison again. Hundreds of “dissidents” would be slaughtered by the outgoing regime before they fled to Taiwan at the end of the 1940's. It's not an uplifting place to visit but one of the best places to understand the political ideology of both sides of the Chinese revolution. You can find photos of the prisoners as well as letters and poetry they wrote during their incarceration. Many of these have been translated into English so you won’t need to rely on your China tour guide to get a good picture.
Huajia Zhi Cun
If your China vacation includes a Yangtze River cruise then getting to Huajia Zhi Cun is almost guaranteed. It's a small village which houses 17 state-sponsored Chinese artists. The grounds are captivatingly beautiful and you'll find small gardens connected by cobbled paths linking the studios (which are covered in creeping vines).
If you don't want to go bankrupt on your trip then take it easy on the artwork purchases (these guys are famous in China, and their creations are priced accordingly) and try and sneak a few photos in. Don't forget that all the art here is linked to the revolution and it offers a unique insight into the minds of people who were active participants in the biggest change in China's history.
St. Joseph's Church – Minsheng Lu
If you'd like to connect with China's burgeoning Christian movement then you could do worse than to hunt down St. Joseph's Church. It's difficult to spot from the main street, so you'll want to explore the side streets carefully. You take a trip down a narrow flight of (very) steep stone stairs and into a courtyard barred by a wooden gate. As you enter the courtyard the church is on the right. It's a majestic building carpeted in green ivy on all sides.
It's a very active church and many Chinese travel there at all times of the day, so there's plenty of opportunity to ask questions (if you can find an English speaker). It's none too ornate inside but you can grab a pew and soak up the atmosphere in peace in this busy city.
Zhongxing Lu Flea Market
If you want to do a little shopping on your China tour then why not soak up the atmosphere of an authentic Chinese flea market. The usual rules apply – bargain hard (if you're paying 25-30% of the asking price, you're doing well). Zhongxing Lu is part of the central business district and yet it's a world away from the malls and upmarket stores found elsewhere in the district.
If you do decide to take a trip there you'll find yourself lost in a sea of DVD's, clothing, and cheap electronics. Don't despair though, amongst the tat you'll find some excellent collectibles (such as Chinese comic books) and plenty of antiques. While you're there head down to the Shibati and see some of the city's oldest buildings. It's one of the nicest photo stops for a China vacation in Chongqing.
There's Chinese food and then there's Sichuan food. If your China tour package takes you to Chongqing and/or Chengdu then you're in for a real treat. It's famous for taking people on astounding sensory trip as it combines garlic and chili peppers (often in very generous amounts) in many dishes. You'll also find plenty of peanuts, ginger, star anise, broad beans and sesame. It's perhaps the most interesting and enjoyable food in China.
Don't worry if your palate isn't quite adapted to hot food, while the region's cooking has become known far and wide for “extremely spicy” dishes, the truth is that it only makes up a tiny fraction of the wealth of choice available. Cooking methods are very versatile though the most common are stir frying, braising and steaming there are considered to be over 20 ways to make a meal in Sichuan.
A China tour to the region will leave you salivating with expectation at every meal time, and we've put together a list of some of the best things to try as you travel round.
Kung Pao Chicken
This one is spicy and if you aren't used to fiery lashings of chili you might want to ask if they can tone it down a little for you before it's cooked. It's a stir fry chicken dish where marinated chicken is fried in chili and pepper infused oils. Vegetables, and either peanuts or cashew nuts are added and then a splash of Shaoxing wine (a dark spirit) sets the whole thing off. What sets it apart from its Western equivalent is the use of local peppercorns which cannot be found outside of Sichuan. We've found this to be a huge hit on a China vacation.
Tea Smoked Duck
Tea smoked duck is serious food and if you're lucky enough to be able try some on your China tour then you'll never forget it. The dish takes hours to prepare and as such it's more of a festival/special occasion lunch than a regular occurrence. The marinade contains peppers, baijiu (the ubiquitous Chinese wine), ginger, garlic, salt, tea leaves, camphor leaves and black pepper. It is then blanched, smoked over tea leaves and camphor; it is the steamed and finally deep fried to make it crisp. This might be the best meal you can have as you travel the country, it's lip smackingly good..
Twice Cooked Pork
A regional specialty that tends to appear on the menu twice a month in this part of China, so on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month you're guaranteed to find it somewhere. It takes its name from the fact that the pork is first cubed and boiled along with ginger and salt, it is then left to cool and sliced thinly and shallow fried. It is normally served with a tasty blend of cabbage, peppers and leeks.
Vegetarians may or may not be in luck with this dish. While it's one of the few officially vegetarian dishes in China. You need to check that it's not being served with beef and/or pork or you may get more than you bargained for on your vacation. Essentially it's tofu (a bean curd) in a chilli and bean sauce, with a few other vegetables thrown in for taste. It's a surprisingly creamy texture and the dish has a pleasant bite.
If there's a reason to travel to Sichuan, it's the hotpot. Chinese overseas fantasize about coming home just to share a hotpot with their friends and family. It's China's most communal meal. Essentially you get a big bowl of broth placed over a burner. You then order meat, fish and vegetables to go with it. These are served in very thin slices. You pick up the raw food with your chopsticks and dunk it in the broth for a few seconds to cook. Then you rinse and repeat. You'll be offered a choice of two different soups – one spicy and one not in small restaurants; in larger restaurants you may find they provide both in a divided bowl. This is one dish you want to be very careful of the "spicy" component. Even confirmed chili fanatics can find this broth overwhelming.
A China tour package that takes you to Sichuan is the perfect choice for those who love their food. The region's endless variety of cuisine is worth the trip alone, combined with some of the most beautiful scenery and an opportunity to meet one of China's best known and loved symbols, the panda, it's not to be missed.
Chengdu is a large city in the heart of Sichuan. It's famous for being a China vacation hotspot mainly because it offers the best opportunities to see pandas. What many people don't realise is that it's also a UNESCO city of food. That means if your China tour package stops in Chengdu, you mustn't miss the opportunity to dine out and dine often.
Sichuan food is a fairly generic label, and underneath the wrapper there are multitudes of great and varied styles below. Chengdu is hailed across China as one of the most unique purveyors of this well-loved style.
Hot Pot - Da Miao (16 Zhaixangzi, Qingyang District)
If you're after a hotpot but you're a bit worried that the quality of ingredients might not be “all that” then head to Da Miao. It's an expensive (by local standards) hot pot restaurant, the sounds of Chinese opera pervade the atmospheric main room and the ingredients are of the highest possible standards. Check out the beef (feiniurou) if you've been missing that American touch, and enjoy the delicate spices and gentle fire of the hotpot.
If you're in a larger group on your China vacation why not hire a private room? You can then grab a private bathroom (a blessing in China), some chill out space for that post-meal snooze and even a flat screen TV!
Western (American Style) - Peter's Tex-Mex (117 Ke Hua Bei Lu)
If you'd rather go Western then Peter's is the place to head to. It's regularly voted in the local press as the best Western restaurant in the city. Portions here are definitely “super-size” so if you're not desperate to roll rather than walk as you travel back to your hotel, take it easy and share a little. Highlights of the menu include bacon cheeseburgers (the size of a small house), real milkshakes (with ice cream and dairy milk – unheard of in the rest of China), and their cinnamon rolls.
Take a camera too, if you fancy some shots of lovely Chinese wait staff dressed up cowboy style. Peter's is great value and a lot of fun.
Vegetarian - Wenshuyuan Temple Restaurant (Wenshuyuan Temple Grounds)
It's one thing to tour China it's another to immerse yourself in it. If you fancy getting spiritual on your China vacation, why not eat in a temple? Wenshuyuan specializes in vegetarian food, and gives you the chance to eat healthy while enjoying Sichuan's rich culinary heritage. The setting is nice, though we'll be honest the staff could use a little encouragement to wait tables efficiently.
The food is great though and the whole setting has a lovely local flavour. It's worth making the trip to enjoy their “meat substitute” dishes like the “Sweet and Sour Pork” with no actual pork. One of the best offerings is the rather simply titled “vegetables with bamboo shoots”. We've found that most nights there will be an English speaking waiter around and if not, the menu is rendered (reasonably well) in English too.
Sichuan Food – Baguo Buyi (55 Shenxianshu Nan Lu)
We've saved the best for last. This is a must do restaurant on a China vacation. Baguo Buyi is where the greatest Sichuan chefs do their apprenticeships. The food is a combination of Sichuan classics and contemporary offerings. The ribs in particular are to die for.
Another great reason to take a trip to Baguo Buyi is the additional entertainment that comes along with the food. You'll find that they offer a spectacular dance, fire-breathing and mask changing extravaganza to go alongside the superb food offerings. If you only choose one place to eat while you're in Chengdu, it should be here.
Eating out on a China vacation isn't always easy. Chinese food can seem a little strange to Western palates and the lack of English menus can make it hard to find what you really like. Fortunately in Chengdu this isn't a problem. The food is of the highest standard and because the city is used to catering for tourists there's always a little English language support on standby for you.
The Yangtze River is the third longest in the world. Its course starts at the base of glacier near the Dangla Mountain Range in Tibet. The river runs east into Qinghai and then flows down the edge of Sichuan province before joining with several additional tributaries in the Yibin basin. It cleaves Mount Wushu (and creates the Three Gorges) as it passes Chongqing and Hubei.
The river draws more water in Hubei as thousands of lakes feed the torrent. In Wuhan the largest feeder stream of them all joins the Yangtze River in the form of the Han River (which draws its own water from as far away as Shaanxi). In Jiangxi the Yangtze merges with the largest lake in China – Lake Poyang. It continues to pick up pace as it flows through Anhui and on into Jiangsu and the river finally meets the sea in Shanghai. That's nearly 4,000 miles away from the Dangla Mountain Range.
Of course your Yangtze River cruise won't take you the whole distance of the river (as that would take months) but it will give you a chance to appreciate some of the glories of Asia's longest river.
A Little History
The Yangtze wasn't the original name of the river. In fact it was the name of a small village somewhere long forgotten in rural China. However, Western missionaries made the mistake of believing that the name applied to the whole river and somehow the name stuck.
If you could travel back in time, you might have met some of the first known Chinese people nearly 30,000 years ago in the three gorges area.
Believe it or not there were no bridges across the Yangtze anywhere from Yibin (in Sichuan) all the way to Shanghai until 1957! That means the bridges you see on your trip are a sort of modern miracle. Before the only option for crossing the river would have been by boat.
A Little Culture
Your cruise will take you down one of the world's most important waterways. Nearly 20% of China's economy is dependent on the flow of the Yangtze. Dozens of cities and towns dot its banks and there's plenty of boat traffic at all times of the day.
You should see everything from fishing boats to major industrial transporters and even river taxis. One of the joys of a cruise here is that all of China can be found here, the modern and the traditional way of life blend seamlessly on the water.
A Little Wildlife
The Yangtze has suffered from pollution from the cultural revolution onward and the matter was exacerbated as many of the lakes and tributaries were sealed off for agricultural purposes slowing down the flow of the river. The Chinese government has been making great strides since the millennium to reverse this trend. Many of the lakes and streams have been reconnected with the river and your trip down stream will be much more pleasant for it. There's also been a concerted effort to cut polluting industries to increase the water quality.
There are four critically endangered species that you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of; The Chinese Alligator, The Chinese Paddlefish, the Yangtze River Dolphin and the Finless Porpoise. Though you would have to be very lucky to see the dolphin as no-one has seen one since 2004. However, that doesn't mean there aren't still a few out there tucked away from view. The trouble with such a long river is that it's impossible for anyone to monitor it for species living below the surface.
A Yangtze River cruise gives you the opportunity to appreciate much of China. The scenery is often breath-taking and dramatic and the pace of river life is one that's often much appreciated after more hectic travel experiences within the country. It's one of the few places that you can really appreciate the scale of change within China and still see the original way of life taking place in contrast. It's highly recommended for those who want their trip to encompass more than just the big name destinations.
There's only one place to take a China river cruise, and that's the Yangtze River. It's the third longest river in the world, just behind the Amazon and the Nile. While there's an undeniably industrial feel to some of the bordering landscape, it's also home to some of the most striking scenery in the country.
One of the main highlight of a Yangtze River cruise is a trip to the three gorges. Yes, there's a dam that bears the name and it's an engineering miracle if somewhat environmentally expensive. It is the largest power station in the world and in general terms it's considered to be a resounding success. One of the big benefits to the people who live on the banks of the river is that there's a significant lower risk of flooding since the dam opened.
If your cruise is between July and August you may be lucky enough to watch the flood water discharge from the dam. Get up on the unimaginatively named “dam viewing point” and you can watch as over 36,000 cubic meters of water are ejected every second. The noise is quite unbelievable but the scene is extremely impressive.
However, it's not the dam that's the most appealing sight on a Yangtze River cruise but the three gorges themselves. These are classified by the China National Tourism Administration as an AAAAA scenic-area. That's a lot of “A's” and that's because it really is a spectacular trip down the river.
The Three Gorges Region
The region itself is a little over 200 kilometres of the Yangtze River basin. The gorges themselves take up around 120 km of that.
Assuming your Yangtze River cruise is heading downstream from the dam, you'll encounter the gorges in the following order. Qutang Gorge, Wu Gorge, and Xiling Gorge.
Qutang Gorge has the some of the tallest rock formations, and it's the narrowest point on the river (around 50 meters) so as you can imagine it's quite imposing. You'll find that your cruise ship picks up pace as you approach and the cliff faces loom down on you. You should also keep an eye out for the "rhinoceros" on the Northern bank. It's not an actual rhinoceros but in fact a rock that looks very much like one.
Wu Gorge is a much less dramatic place and rather more serene. It's quite long and you'll have plenty of time to appreciate the mists formed by the water. One of the really nice things on this part of the river cruise is the way that the light plays tricks. You'll see all sorts of interesting colour changes on the peaks themselves. You'll also want to keep an eye on your own shadow. Why? Because there's an interesting phenomena known as the "Buddha's Light". This is when the light distortion actually causes a “halo” effect on your own shadow. It's unique to this part of China.
The Xiling Gorge is only accessible because of the dam. In times gone by the waterways here were so treacherous that the tranquil looking waters are home to many a wrecked ship. There's a more simple beauty to this stretch and if you keep your eyes focused on the tops of the cliffs, you should be able to pick out three cities along the tops.
A China river cruise is an not-to-be-missed experience, the drama of the three gorges adds a little icing to the cake. The Yangtze is one of the world's natural marvels and it's always best to appreciate it from a boat.