When you’re on your China vacation you might want to grab a copy of one of the local English language newspapers. What makes them a special part of a China tour are the odd-news sections. Essentially Chinese journalism is normally a little bland so to add a bit of spice the editorial desks travel the whole of China searching for bizarre stories to liven things up a bit.
Occasionally one of these moments of madness resonates with the Chinese public and the story is pushed from being local lunacy to something that engages the entire country. This week’s big blockbuster story is really about the problems facing people who want to travel in China during the Spring Festival.
It began about 6 months ago as a love-story. Many Chinese people have to leave their home towns and take a trip elsewhere in China in order to find work. As is so often the case with people away from home they fall in love. The young man in this tale was from the Northern province of Urumqi which is an area near Tibet and Sichuan. The young lady on the other hand was from Guangdong which in the South near the border with Hong Kong.
Their relatively separate cultural identities were no barrier to their strong feelings and as is the way with Chinese relationships – he took a trip to see her parents and got permission to marry her. She said; “I do.” Then they both moved together to another city – Changchun and set up home. And that would normally be the end of things except for the fact that Spring Festival is nearly upon us.
In China family relationships are a very important part of people’s personal identity. This is far more true than in much of the West. Children are brought up to revere their parents and to visit them whenever possible. In fact, it’s likely that China will soon pass a law compelling people to take at least a bi-annual trip to their parents’ homes to ensure that this tradition continues.
However, for most people in China the opportunity to travel home comes but once a year. That time is Spring Festival. You see Chinese labor law doesn’t give most people very much vacation time but during Spring Festival almost everyone gets a two (or more) week break. That means across China people rush home to see their families.
The problem, of course, comes when you have two families that want to see their children and it is compounded when those families live on almost opposite ends of China. Our ill-fated couple began to argue over whose parents would be lucky enough to get their company during the vacation.
If you’re wondering why they couldn’t see both sets of parents it’s worth noting that trying to buy a bus or train or plane ticket in China during spring festival is ridiculously difficult – thanks to the volumes of people travelling. You normally have to appear in person at the place you want to travel from in order to secure any kind of ticket and you might need to wait for a day or more before you get served.
In the end they simply couldn’t agree but they felt strongly enough about the issue that their marriage couldn’t survive either. Six months after they wed the couple has decided to go their separate ways. It’s a strange story but one which resonates with many people in China – long periods of separation from your family for economic reasons can wear many people down. So an odd news story has once again captured the imagination of the nation.
As you travel through China on your vacation you'll come to understand that despite the official position as ardent atheists, the Chinese are a very spiritual people. Your China tour will take you to ancient and modern temples and you'll see folks engaged in worship and religious study very much as they would be at home. China's beliefs have been shaped over thousands of years of continuous history and there are some interesting and unusual aspects of their beliefs that aren't common in the West. Let's take a little trip round one of those aspects – the five elements.
The culture of China focuses on balance. In order for people to feel balanced they need to ensure that the elements of their life are in balance too. As you'll see on your China vacation there's a lot of emphasis on social and individual harmony – in China individualism is almost rude, the people around you matter every bit as much as you do yourself. They use the five elements to “sense check” their own approach to daily life.
There is no force on earth immune to the flow of water. As it travels downstream it slowly erodes everything in its path. For the people of China water represents the drive or determination of a person. Someone who is rich in water is well grounded and capable of startling feats of physical labor.
As flames crackle and things get hotter the air above a fire warms and rises. A feather placed in this air would slowly take a trip upward against gravity. In China the element of Shen is related to positivity and serene energy. Someone with plenty of Shen is able to rest, relax, eat well and contribute their whole being to the task at hand.
While the first two elements are concerned with motion, the tree stands still. It reaches out over the land and spreads in many different directions. Someone who has an excess of Hun will be certain of their destiny and be able to express themselves clearly.
In China it is believed that metal is formed through the heavy weight of the earth compressing rocks and minerals that lie beneath its surface. This pushing together represents the way human beings push together. In the same way as you will push together with many other people during the course of your China vacation. Someone with much Po will be socially able and keen to learn from others.
The earth is the center of the universe in Chinese lore. There is an understanding that each individual focuses on the place that they are centered and that for Chinese people is always on the earth. People with a strong amount of I have a clear sense of self-identity and self-worth. The ideal is for an individual to have plenty of each element to ensure that they achieve personal balance. There are drawbacks to being strong only in a single element. You might want to contemplate your own elemental make up as you enjoy your trip round China. You could even share your ideas with a Chinese friend who will be keen to help you understand a little bit more about spirituality in this great land of travel and adventure.
Guilin's a high spot for many people's China tours. The fantastic scenic nature of the city combined with a proximity to the rice terraces can leave the visitor breathless. There's another great place to check out during your China vacation too, the Gudong Waterfall Park. A short trip from China's most picturesque city takes you to a place of natural beauty and lots of fun.
Unsurprisingly, your trip to Gudong Waterfall Park gives you plenty of access to waterfalls. There are 6 waterfalls in total on the park's grounds. However, the one that everyone comes to see is divided into 9 separate stages and you can actually climb the waterfall. It's not something that everyone can undertake – you'll need to be reasonably fit, wear suitable clothing and be prepared to get very wet if you slip. It's a unique China moment though and there will be plenty of locals around to help out if you do find yourself struggling.
The Wind and Rain Bridge
Classic Chinese architecture offers plenty of photo opportunities for capturing memories of your China vacation and the wind and rain bridge is absolutely lovely. With a pagoda style presentation it sits firmly atop one of the waterfall peaks. It's fantastic at a distance and the perfect shelter from the elements if it's getting a little warm during your China tour. If you're really lucky you might catch some of the local Chinese people practicing Tai-Chi on it during the early morning.
The Suspension Bridge and Cable Slide
This one isn't for the faint-hearted. China travel is normally quite sedate, so if you fancy a little adrenaline rush the suspension bridge is the right place to go. It's 200 meters of precariously balanced bridge and you need to follow instructions carefully in order to ensure that everyone is safe during your transit. Once you're over the top – it's time to take a cable slide back to the bottom of the mountain, a 180 meter journey you're likely to remember for a lifetime.
Zhuang Folk Singing
The Zhuang ethnic minority are some of the many interesting people you might encounter during your China trip. You'll find “Sister Liu” belting out some of their classic songs during a day at the Gudong Waterfall Park. This is all in an antiphonal style of classic call and refrain. Thus it's a spectator sport too. She provides the call and the audience the refrain. There are impromptu prizes for the best participants ensuring much merriment. Maple Trees
If you're there during the Autumn then you're sure to take a trip through the maple trees. Their foliage becomes bright red and it can be extremely attractive. If you'd like to get a better understanding of rural China then this is a great place to do so. Picking strawberries or grapes or enjoying a meal at a local farmer's house can really enhance your China vacation.
This week the Chinese news is full of reports over new rules for taxi drivers in Beijing. Given that you'll almost certainly want to catch a cab during your China vacation we've taken a quick look at whether this means China's taxi drivers are taking you for a ride or just for a tour of the city. We've always found taking a trip by taxi in China's capital to be perfectly acceptable – so what's all the fuss about?
Rush Hour – Go Slow
It won't take 5 minutes during a Beijing rush hour to realize that the city grinds to a halt. During this period if your take a trip in a taxi you'll be lucky to cover a couple of miles – we'd recommend skipping the roads and jumping on the Metro (subway) instead. Travel by subway in Beijing is convenient, and the network is new, modern and safe too. There are plenty of English signs and machines are in English too so you won't get lost and end up in some remote part of China.
However, we digress. The rush hour has become distinctly unappealing to the taxi drivers. They don't want to take you on a short trip because while the price of a fare has doubled in the last 20 years – the cost of petrol has gone up by 5 times that rate. In short when they're stuck in traffic – they lose money. Given that a taxi driver in China has to pay a license fee plus all his own petrol before he makes a living, it's not a positive thing for a driver to work during rush hour.
This has the unfortunate effect of taking 10,000 cabs off the road during rush hour. Travel in Beijing can be difficult at the best of times but those who want a taxi home often find themselves out of luck. This isn't helped by the fact that there are no more taxis on the road today than there were 20 years ago. The population of Beijing has doubled in that time. That means business travelers are finding a trip to China's capital more and more frustrating.
The local government has decided it has had enough and is now compelling taxis to work during the rush hour. This has outraged China's drivers who feel they are being taken for a ride now. In fairness that's probably true as the big 7 companies that control the majority of Beijing's taxis certainly aren't reporting huge profits (less than 2% of revenue in fact).
Now drivers face fines and even the possibility of losing their driving license if they don't comply with the new regulations. China's press has been mainly supportive of drivers and they feel that it's time for more independent operators and an increase in the number of licensed taxis in Beijing to enable driving during rush hour to be profitable.
What does this mean for your China vacation? Well, technically if a driver refuses to take a trip back to your hotel you could report him to China's authorities. They will then fine the driver and compel him to work in future. However, we don't think that's a good use of your time on your China tour – it would be better to understand his position and catch a subway instead.
One thing you're sure to notice during your China vacation is the importance that the Chinese place on superstition and ritual. While you may get to see religious sites during your China tour, the truth is that as a whole China is not a particularly religious country per se. The real Chinese culture focuses much more on a host of minor traditions linked to the animist roots of China. As you travel throughout modern China these practices are very much still in force everywhere. We've put together a quick introduction to lucky numbers and colors so you can better understand China before your trip.
Lucky Numbers in China
It's worth noting that one number isn't lucky at all in China. You might notice that during your vacation a hotel rarely has floors or rooms that start with the number four. That's because the Chinese word for four is nearly identical to the Chinese word for death. Many Western hotels avoid the number 13 because it's considered unlucky, so it's not surprising that the Chinese choose to do the same.
The number 8 on the other hand is considered to be very lucky both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. That's because in Mandarin it sounds like the word for "prosperity". On top of that there's a striking similarity when 88 is written in Chinese with the characters for "shining joy". This gives the number 8 supreme significance and people are excited to see the presence of multiple 8's in phone numbers, addresses, etc. To a lesser extent other number combinations can also represent luck depending on the local dialect and disposition. In general even numbers (except 4) are preferred to odd numbers and the word for "nine" sounds a little like the word for "permanence".
Lucky Colors in China
As your tour moves through China you'll start to see the color red almost everywhere. It's the national color and that's because it's felt to represent happiness, wealth and beauty. So the national flag is red, red is always used for signs celebrating the opening of a business, marriages contain plenty of red decoration, and during New Year children receive red packets from relatives. It's simply impossible to take a China vacation and not notice how much red means to the Chinese.
However, it's not as well known that both green and yellow are also very auspicious colors in China. Yellow has strong connections with royalty and power. China's first ruler was the Yellow Emperor. The Yangtze is also the yellow river. It also explains why the Chinese refer to themselves as yellow skinned. It might have racist overtones in Western culture but you'll find during your trip to China that every Chinese considers themself to be yellow.
Green is perhaps unsurprisingly associated with money. One thing you'll definitely pick up on during your China vacation is that the Chinese have a very open public love of wealth and money. You'll often find that on a trip to a Chinese bank that much of the decoration is green and red because of this.
It's the little details that make Chinese culture so fascinating. Understanding the lucky numbers and lucky colors can help make your China vacation a bit more fun. The Chinese enjoy sharing their luck and admiration for lucky people, if you are invited to someone's home during your China tour; be sure to wear red if you want to make your hosts really happy.
China is famous for leading the world in manufacturing. You certainly can't miss that fact on a China tour, the landscape is dotted with factories throughout the country. However, while you might not see this on your China vacation there's also a concerted effort for the country to promote new practices. There's a very small chance that you might see dolphins on a Yangtze River Cruise but elsewhere in the country dolphins are bringing real benefits to young children.
Dolphins are the closest, in terms of intelligence, animals to human beings on the planet. Many people take vacations just to swim with dolphins or see them perform. However, in China there's a growing body of research to show that dolphins might be able to assist with developmental challenges for children.
There's a new practice in Hangzhou Polar Ocean Park that offers hope to the parents of disabled children. One father enthusiastically praised the center for bringing his autistic son out of his shell and the child has now taken on a role of responsibility in his kindergarten class. The father says he discovered dolphin therapy when he took a vacation in Australia and he can't believe the facility is now available in Zhejiang, China. Sadly, the center is now operating at maximum capacity and other prospective customers will have to join a growing year long waiting list to have any chance of their children engaging with China's dolphins.
The park's owner says that he believes swimming with dolphins relaxes children who have developmental disabilities and it's that relaxation that improves their attention spans. He observed that watching children play with the dolphins you can see that both the animal and the child are happier and excited. He's certain that the emotional trip between child and dolphin plays a major role in the overall stimulation process. There are also some claims that happiness will also have a positive effect on the overall immune system of the child which might also help them become mentally healthier.
Other experts allege that taking a tour of the water with a dolphin is more than just the experience of the animal. They say that dolphins help improve the water quality (based on reports of dolphins carbonating the water). They also say that the ultrasonic frequencies of a dolphin's echo-location may assist in breaking down stubborn particles in the human body.
However, it's worth noting that despite China's new found enthusiasm for dolphin therapy there is, as yet, no scientific evidence that there are consistent benefits from this kind of treatment. This is despite recent results published by the Aqua Thought Foundation that suggest a trip with a dolphin changes the brainwaves of both man and mammal.
China's animal rights campaigners are not so easily convinced. They feel that regular tour groups of children invading the animal's habitats might cause undue stress for the dolphins themselves. The campaigners can't provide any evidence of this at the moment either. Given that dolphin therapy has been on the menu in the West for a long time it's hardly surprising that China is catching up. For the moment this won't be part of any China tour package as there's a long queue for the therapy within China. However, when you're taking part in a Yangtze River Cruise on your China tour and seeking out some of the elusive river dolphins – you might want to think on the children who will be enjoying dolphin therapy.
If you're taking in a Yangtze River Cruise then you might want to check out the Sanxingdui Museum when your China tour moves through Chengdu. The Chinese government calls it one of the top 50 places that every visitor should see during a trip to China. That's because it's one of the only places in the country where you can get an insight into the Shu culture that once dominated much of China.
The Sangxingdui Museum
It's a bit of a trek out of Chengdu (approx. 40km) so you might want to start your trip early in the day so you can do something else in the afternoon. The museum lies on the banks of the Jian River and it highlights the finds from the local “Northeast of Three-Star Piles” archaeological dig. The museum takes up over an acre of space and for China it's a nice modern facility with plenty on show.
The "Three-Star Piles" dig site contains the largest and oldest heritage of the Shu people (literally Sichuan people). The legend goes that the Emperor of Heaven threw down three handfuls of earth onto the Chengdu plain and this became the three-star piles. In fact, this isn't really the case. While it's a nice legend to share with people on a China vacation the truth is a little less glamorous – they're really the remains of a walled city that collapsed in ancient times.
Rather like that other China Tour highlight the Terracotta Warriors, the Three-Star Piles site was uncovered by accident. A peasant tending his fields back in 1929 found a large piece of jade in the ground. This inspired an awful lot of treasure hunters to turn up and lend a hand digging. They found nearly 400 jade items in a short period and soon the archaeologists were summoned to take over the dig.
The theory is that this was the remains of the ancient capital of Shu (which would have dated back to the 7th century BC) though more modern remains from the Shang Period of Chinese history and paleolithic remains have also been discovered on the site. That means visitors are on for a nice trip through all of China's ancient history when they visit.
Inside the museum you'll find that you can explore ancient Shu culture including some of the only written material that remains. You'll also find that a bit of a mystery, which relates to the disappearance of the Shu. The assumption had always been that they were less developed than the central Chinese and were wiped out as a natural consequence of that. However, the remains on display here show that this clearly wasn't the case and the Shu were perhaps technologically advanced compared to their neighbors.
You can find the best Shu cultural artifacts in China on your trip through the exhibits. There's also a wonderful model of the excavation site documenting where everything was found. Finally there's an exhibition hall devoted to gold, jade, pottery and bronze ware.
A Yangtze River cruise is one of the best ways to appreciate China's historic waterways. When your China tour reaches Chengdu you'll have your only opportunity to head further afield and learn more about one of the least understood but most intriguing ancient Chinese cultures. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity on your China vacation.
If you're taking a Yangtze River cruise during your China vacation then you'll be looking for ways to get a great view of the river from above. One of the nicer places to check out the river from is Pipashan Park in Chongqing. Fortunately your China tour will be stopping in Chongqing if you're spending time on the Yangtze and it's not too far out to visit.
The Story of Pipashan
As with most natural sites in China there's a bit of history (or at least a good myth) to the park. Pipashan's is a love story. It is said that on the Pipa Mountain a beautiful young girl once lived. This girl met a young fisherman who fished upon the Yangtze River. They fell in love and as is usual in such cases he decided he wanted to marry her.
So summoning up his courage he took a trip to her parent's home and there he bared his heart and asked for permission to marry her. Sadly, for our couple her parents weren't happy that their beautiful daughter might be lost to such a poor man. They refused his request and forbade their daughter to ever look upon him again.
Her misery at this knew no bounds and our girl climbed to the top of the mountain to cry away her frustrations. It was there that she died of depression. (We didn't say this was a happy story). The mountain was then renamed “Pipa Shan” to commemorate her loss.
This is the kind of story that you'll encounter more than once on your China travel. That's because it resonates so much in the Chinese psyche. In a nation which has been extremely poor for much of its' history marriage has often been conducted for wealth and financial security rather than love. Stories like these allow the Chinese people to mourn for their lost opportunities collectively.
The Pipashan Park is on Pipashan Mountain (also called Loquat Hill) and stands over half a mile above sea level. It's the highest point in Chongqing. There's plenty of beautifully cultivated trees, flowers and grasses to relax on. It also offers one of the finest views of the two rivers below (you can see the Jianlingjiang too) where you watch others enjoying their Yangtze River Cruise.
If you time your trip for the evening then hang around a little and appreciate the bridges over the river. As the light dims they take on almost a rainbow sheen and they're quite spectacular. Even in summer there's a nice breeze in the park so you won't have to sweat as you enjoy the view. As with many of China's parks it's also a perfect place to grab some photos of ordinary Chinese life as a memento of your China vacation. You'll find that as you tour the grounds there are many people enjoying tai-chi, dancing, music, juggling and more. This is typical of China where space is at such a premium that many people have to take their leisure where they can find it.
There were once two museums inside the park. Sadly the much acclaimed Chongqing Municipal Museum, which offered an interesting view of local life, is now closed. However, you'll still be able to take a tour of the Natural History Museum which is a semi-privately owned affair and one of China's better regional museums.
A Yangtze River Cruise is one of the most spectacular moments of a China vacation, you can make that moment last just a little longer by taking a trip to Pipashan Park. You'll be able to get a much better feel for how the river interacts with the landscape than you can perhaps get when you're on the river trying to take in all the sights.
One of the things that you might have heard is that China is fast becoming the world's most educated nation. In fact you'll see plenty of evidence for this on your China vacation, as your tour wends through the Chinese country you'll see the massive swell of construction and engineering that makes China the world's factory. You should also see it on every stop of your trip as you engage with hotel and tour staff in English. However, in this week's news there's been a certain appetite for the stranger side of the Chinese education system.
You might not see too many stars on your China vacation thanks to the brightness of the city lights but Yangzhou University is the first place in China to take its' students beyond this world. At least that's what the news reports would have you believe.
The local press has been full of tales of their new astrology course. Apparently all students will be divided up into classes where everyone shares the same star sign. More outrageous still there will be only twelve lessons on this brief trip through higher education. That's one lesson for each sign of the zodiac.
However, the headlines can be misleading. In the case of Yangzhou's University's unfortunate brush with national fame they're more than misleading. This isn't a standard university course. In fact it's not part of any of their degree programs. It's an entirely optional course that allows students to become more familiar with China's cultural heritage. That's a pretty reasonable objective by any standard.
Of course it's no stranger a concept than the courses offered in many Western universities. The University of Plymouth for example allows students to take a whole degree in Surfing Studies. Apparently that doesn't constitute 3 years of travel and trips to the beach, rather it's an in-depth program on fluid dynamics and material usage for surfboard design. So China isn't doing anything that other countries don't do already.
The big difference of course is that China takes education so seriously. The country knows that its' continued journey out of poverty and into the big leagues (economically speaking) depends on having the best educated children in the world. China has already over taken the United States in terms of the numbers of scientific papers it releases each year (there is some debate as to whether the quality of these papers is on equal terms with Western research, a question that becomes harder to answer as most research papers in China are published in Mandarin and are not translated into English).
China also produces the most engineers per capita of any nation in the world. In fact no matter where you choose to go on vacation nowadays the likelihood is that there will be a group of Chinese engineers working on construction and civil development projects nearby.
Because of this attitude towards education as a solely serious business and not an open tour of mind expanding creativity – Yangzhou University has come under serious fire from the Chinese public for their approach to astrology.
In fact they should be praised. Not only is China not renowned for creativity in education (despite strong government incentive to deliver such creativity) but this class is also run by students. Who found themselves facing a specific issue; “how do we get people to come to an optional course when most people can't be bothered to attend their compulsory classes?” Their solution was to make it interesting and to flirt with something you'll encounter quite a lot on your China vacation, the local obsession with spirituality which includes astrology.
So don't be fooled. When you take your China tour you'll be mixing amongst the best educated people on earth. You might even find that your China trip's a happier one if someone takes the time out to talk to you about Chinese astrology.
If you're going to spend some time in Shanghai on your China vacation then you might fancy a quick trip out into the less-explored side of the city. One place you might want to visit is the Hongkou District. It's rich in history; it was the first part of China to be occupied by the Japanese before they took the whole of Shanghai. Interestingly it was also the Jewish ghetto however the Japanese refused to build concentration camps despite instructions to do so by their German allies. Today it's the perfect place to take a trip away from the beaten path and explore one of China's more interesting districts.
There are plenty of places to see if you do decide to take a break in your tour here. One of the first places people visit is the Hongkou Football Stadium. That's because it's home to China's biggest football club – Shanghai Shenhua. Some famous players have made the trip here too – most recently Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba made the transition from England's premier league to Chinese football. If you'd like to pick up a souvenir shirt for a perfect China vacation memento then there are shops dotted around the outside of the ground which aren't too expensive. Lu Xun Park is also here and it's a nice place to chill out away from the crowds and enjoy the traditional erhu music. You can also find Lu Xun's tomb in the north of the park which is mainly interesting because of the inscription which was written by Mao Zedong himself.
You can continue your tour at the Lu Xun museum. Lu Xun is famous for being the father of modern Chinese literature. He was part of the movement of rebellion (the May Fourth Movement) at German territories in China being passed over to Japanese hands. Whilst well respected by the Communist Party for his works attacking Confucianism and promoting left-wing theories, he never actually joined the party. One of the nice things about this museum is that much of the content has been translated into English unlike many of the others that you'll encounter on your China vacation.
To complete your insight into Lu Xun's life you can also take a trip to his former residence which is also in the Hongkou district. The clock in his bedroom shows the time of his death and you can examine his possessions as well as his death mask. It's a nice way to remember the life of one of China's most influential artists.
Continue your tour of the district with a quick trip down Duolun Road Cultural Street. If you're lucky you'll see not just the beautiful old-style architecture but young newlyweds posing for their wedding photos in both traditional Chinese costumes and more Western ones. In China it's traditional for wedding photos to be taken after the wedding. Today that tradition has evolved to mean a bride and groom renting up to a dozen different costumes for the perfect photo series.
It's on Duolun Road that you'll also find the "Old Film Cafe" here you can see a tribute to Chinese cinema of the 20's and 30's. There's a theatre upstairs which has screenings but if you haven't got the time to watch a film on your tour of the district you can at least grab a cup of tea and enjoy the stills on the walls of the cafe below.
Finally, head to the Museum of Modern Art – the first of its' kind in China and enjoy the sense of purpose as the Museum tries to recreate authentic street culture in Shanghai.
Hongkou District offers the chance to do something a little different on your China vacation. If you'd prefer to avoid the bustle of central Shanghai and do something a little more peaceful instead then a trip out to one of China's more interesting districts might be just the thing for you.
Many people want to travel to Tibet as part of their China tour and who can blame them? The special administrative region is packed with history and culture and offers a very different slice of life to the mainland itself. One of the things we've found people on a Tibet tour want to know about is the local artwork. So we've take a quick trip round Tibet's art culture to provide you with a brief primer.
Buddhism and Tibetan Art
You'll soon notice on your travels round Tibet that the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist in nature. In fact since the 6th century Tibet's been one of the world's most Buddhist places and Buddhism is the most important influence in Tibetan art.
Tantric Buddhism (often also referred to as Vajrayana Buddhism because vajra means “diamond thunderbolt”) is the most common reference in Tibetan art. In general this art is used to enable a deeper level of meditation and visualization during worship. You can see mandalas and gods represented on a fairly regular basis.
One of the more disturbing aspects of Tantric Buddhism in Tibetan art is the regular use of “wrathful deities”. These are angry and vengeful looking faces surrounded by flame or occasionally by skulls. Yet, a careful exploration of these reveals that they are wrathful to protect the teachings of Buddhism and not with any individual. In fact, there's nothing to worry about if you encounter them on your Tibet tour – they are actually said to offer a certain amount of psychological protection to the viewer.
Before Buddhism arrived in Tibet, the region would have practiced Shamanistic religions. The local variant of Shamanism is most commonly referred to as "Bon". As with much of the rest of the world's Buddhist cultures the introduction of Buddhism did not usurp local religions instead it merged with them.
You can see the evidence for this on your Tibet trip in the artwork. You'll find the Buddha is often flanked by a tutelary deity (usually of an angry demeanor). Once this deity would have been considered to be responsible for sickness and death within the local citizenry but the arrival of the Buddha in Tibet changed this. Now the deity is forced to serve the Buddha and is no longer a threat to the individual.
Common Forms of Tibetan Art
A word of warning for your Tibet tour, please do not consider purchasing anything that is claimed to be “antique”. Firstly, it's very possible that it's a fake and you will be charged far more than the item is worth. Secondly, and much worse, it's just possible that it's real. If you are caught trying to export real antiques from China without a permit you will be in serious trouble. By all means enjoy the artwork and feel free to purchase replicas and of course modern works but please leave the antiques alone.
The most common art forms in Tibet include carved decorations that are often found on burial mounds and in religious temples. It goes without saying that you should treat these with reverence as they are especially holy to local people.
You'll also find beautiful Tibetan rugs and Tibet's rugs are exported round the world. In fact they've been making the long hard trip down into India for centuries. It's worth noting that Tibet stopped producing rugs for nearly 50 years last century and the tradition has only recently revived. So while the rugs are very nice, they're not of particular value to collectors, etc.
One other very common piece of art you should encounter on your Tibet tour is the Tsakli. These are miniature paintings that may (or may not) be mounted on a stick. These have a practical religious purpose and are used to cast out evil spirits and to provide protection from travelers. They are normally painted on cloth but you might find that the cheapest Tsakli are made from woodblock carvings rather than painted on. A vacation in Tibet is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Appreciating the local art is one of the best parts of a Tibet tour. It's important to remember that art in Tibet is usually of religious significance and you should ensure that you show proper respect for it during your trip.
If you’re lucky enough to be taking your China vacation during Spring Festival then you’re in for a treat. This is the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar and there a plenty of festivities to join in with on your trip. It’s also one of the busiest times of year as more than 1 billion journeys will be made as people travel from one side of China to the other to be reunited with their families. We’ve got some details regarding the festival to make this China experience even richer for you.
The Origins of Chinese New Year
The New Year is a very old festival. It has been passed down through the ages and was made an official holiday during the time of the Han Dynasty (that’s around 200 B.C.). At that time China was very much animist in nature and the festival would honor the spirits of the harvest.
During the Tang Dynasty this would begin to evolve into a more recognizable form of the Spring Festival celebrations we see today. Instead of the New Year being celebrated on various dates it was decided that it would be moved to the first day of the lunar calendar – which is why the start date travels around the Western fixed-calendar. The religious aspects of New Year also began to die off as China’s religions evolved (Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism) and the holiday began to be about spending time together with your family to celebrate the good things in life.
Fireworks at Spring Festival are amazing and can be a fantastic part of your China vacation experience. This tradition started as a means to ward off the evil lion “Nian” who was reputed to want to destroy the world at the end of each year. The noise and the color red (which Nian was meant to be afraid of) would keep people safe until the following year.
Speaking of safety, it’s worth making sure that your China tour is accident free and that means taking sensible precautions around fireworks. Despite efforts by the authorities to ensure that fireworks are only used as parts of official displays you’ll find them on pretty much every street corner for the whole spring festival period and it’s not unknown for people to throw them around either.
As it’s a time for family it’s fairly obvious that the Chinese travel home for this festival if they can. This leads to the largest migration of people on earth during that period. The good news is that this won’t interfere with your China vacation as all our trips are planned and booked in advance.
It's normal for every child in China (and every adult if they can afford it) to be given a set of new clothes for Spring Festival – red is considered to be very lucky and black is not.
If you visit someone’s home on your China vacation during this period it is normal for married people to give unmarried people (and particularly children) a red envelope containing cash. This should be notes and not coins. It is very unlucky to give amounts in multiples of 4 (the Chinese word for death is a homophone for the number 4) and very lucky to give amounts in multiples of 8. In general you should give appropriately based on the status of your host but there’s no need to give too much. For other children you might want to keep some red envelopes handy with 8 or 10 RMB inside. Why Spring Festival? No-one really knows. Traditionally the celebration was referred to as New Year until about 1912 and for a while it was cancelled under communist rule. However, in the 1980s it was brought back as an official government holiday but for some reason the Spring Festival moniker stuck. If you’d like to wish someone a “happy New Year” on your China vacation then you can say; “Gong Xi Fa Choi” which actually means “congratulations on getting rich” but is considered to be extremely lucky by the Chinese. Spring Festival is a great period to travel in China and the happy celebratory air adds just a little extra something special to a China tour.
Macao's an optional extra on our China tour. We've found that people really appreciate the chance to see the integration of Portuguese and Chinese culture on their China vacation. One of the biggest pleasures of a visit to Macao is the chance to take in the food culture. It's 100% unique and a trip to Macao allows you to try food that you won't find anywhere else in the world. To help you get the most out of your visit we've put together a list of some of the finest restaurants in the former colony:
This isn't the right spot for those on a tight China vacation budget but the food is simply superb. Antonio's has a justly deserved 3 Michelin stars and you won't regret taking a trip to lighten your wallet. We strongly recommend starting off with their cheese platter – possibly the finest collection of cheese you can find anywhere in China. Fish is very much the main order of the day and it gives you a chance to appreciate the subtle hints of Chinese in the more traditional European dishes. You can also take advantage of a very well put together wine list.
For something a little more reasonably priced head to the thatched huts of the Afrikana BBQ. The good news is that you can eat as much as you want most evenings for only $188 (Macau Dollars). That's a steal for the location and the blend of African and Portuguese influences on the cookery. Possibly one of the most innovative places you can dine anywhere in China. You'll be able to stack your plates as high as you like so try everything but especially the seared fish.
Fat Siu Lau
If you'd prefer to keep your food Chinese for your tour then this understated Cantonese restaurant might be more to your tastes. Take a trip to one of the zone's oldest eateries (it was established in 1903) and you'll find an interesting combination of local favorites as well as innovative modern dishes. Try the roasted pigeon – they won't share the recipe as the marinade is a closely guarded secret but it is simply sublime.
Litoral is always packed out. So many locals make the trip here that if you really want authentic Macanese food this has to be the highlight of your China vacation. If you'd like to conserve your funds then keep to the set menus but if you'd like one of China's best puddings keep a little in reserve for the coconut egg custard at the end. The tamarind pork (with just a hint of shrimp paste) is our favorite main course here.
Strangely Thai food doesn't really feature in mainland China's gastronomic repertoire yet. That's despite the fact that chili is very much the focus of several regional schools of cookery. So if you'd like something very different on your China tour then you might want to give Naam a go. The pomelo prawn salad makes for a delectable starter and the spicy pork with chilies and basil is an excellent main. We're not so keen on the deep fried deserts but if you can spare a few inches of waistline they're very tasty.
As we said at the start of this piece Macao's an optional trip on our China tours. However, if you do go – we think the choice of food available is even better than in Hong Kong. There are plenty of great places to eat and the food culture is very individual compared to much of the mainland. It's your chance to add just a little extra twist to your China vacation.
One thing we've found people want to know about on their China vacation is the Chinese art culture. China has a long history of art work and possibly has the longest continuous tradition of art forms of any country. On you China tour you'll come into contact with all of the main forms of art work. We've taken a quick trip round the four main forms so that you'll be better prepared to appreciate them.
Wherever your China tour takes you, you'll find plenty of paintings as well as many works of calligraphy which can be considered as an extension of painting. Calligraphy is usually carried out using a brush that has been dipped into black and sometimes colored inks. You'll find this is often mounted on scrolls. Painting is done on a much wider range of media including sheets, walls, screens, etc.
On your China vacation you'll discover there are two types of Chinese paintings:
Gong-Bi: This is a very detailed painting style (in fact the name gong-bi means meticulous). It uses bright colors and is most often used for painting figures. It was very commonly used by court artists though there are plenty of independent artists who have used the technique too.
Shui-Mo: This style of painting is based on watercolors and ink washes. This “freehand” method has long been associated with amateur art developed by the aristocracy. However, despite this there are plenty of artists who have made a successful career of using it.
If you could take a trip back into the past you'd see that these styles have been popular since the Han era in 202 B.C. Paintings from early tombs in this era have supplied a lot of the historical data to develop our understanding of ancient China's history. The landscapes often give strong clues to the date of the piece.
If you're going to Xi'an on your China tour then you'll certainly get a look at some of the finest works of sculpture in history. The Terracotta Army is nearly 1,800 years old and is one of the most detailed studies of a time period available given the lifelike portrayal of thousands of figures.
In general historical Chinese sculpture has very little in the way of religious aspect with the exception of Buddhist representations from the 4th to 14th centuries. In fact, the vast majority of sculptures avoids the human form and concentrate more on the animals. Many of the Imperial Tombs have animal sculptures that rival those found in Egypt honoring the pharaohs.
Pottery has been evolving for a long time in China. In fact this art can be traced back to Paleolithic times. There are very few famous potters as the Chinese have been able to make exceedingly fine ceramic ware on an industrial scale for centuries. The Emperor would have owned most of the workshops and their output would have been either sold to him or dedicated to him. Ceramic wear makes for an excellent gift for your friends back home from your China vacation.
The Chinese have also been working with many different valuable goods to create ornamentation and even small sculptures since time immemorial.
The materials used are quite extraordinary and range through jade, ivory, lacquer, enamel, gold, rhino horn, etc. Jade in particular has been part of the jewelry trade since the Stone Age where it was often used to create replicas of important weaponry. If you want to buy jade on your China tour please make sure you use a reputable dealer as much of the jade on China's street markets is not of a particularly good grade and some will be 100% fake.
This has been very much a high-level look at the art forms you might encounter on your China vacation. We'll take a more in-depth trip round China's art scene at a later date too. In general if you're considering buying art work on your China tour we recommend that you only invest small sums of money unless you're an art dealer with a strong understanding of the market. This is because counterfeit items abound and you might also buy an antique by accident (not all vendors know their art properly either) and that might lead to committing a criminal offense when trying to take it outside of the country.
Beijing's a busy city. In fact, for people on their first China vacation sometimes it's too busy. Getting away from the crowds for a bit can leave you refreshed and ready to continue your tour of China's capital. If you're in need of a little peace and tranquility then we highly recommend you take a little trip to the Fayuan Temple. It's one of China's oldest Buddhist temples and the center of the Buddhist faith in modern China.
Buddhism in China
Buddhism has been in China since the 3rd Century A.D. The precise date of its' arrival from India is up for debate but the earliest record shows a monk's travel through China in the year 230 A.D. Buddhism was a natural fit with China's animist beliefs and extremely complementary with Taoism one of the other major faiths of its time.
The Fayuan Temple was built way back in 645 A.D. as a monument to soldiers killed on their tour of duty protecting the interests of the Tang Dynasty. The site today is much more modern as it was rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty and then required fairly substantial restoration thanks to fire damage in the 18th century. However, if you'd like to take in the roots of Buddhism on China on your trip there's plenty of artifacts held on the site that date back to before the construction of the temple.
Arriving at Fayuan
Most people combine a visit to Fayuan Temple with a trip to Liulichang (Beijing's antiques’ district) and it's pretty easy to find. Take the subway, Line 4, to Chishikou Station and come out of Exit D by the park. Travel across the park and you'll find the temple on the other side. If you get lost ask a local for “Fayuan Si” and you'll be shown the way in no time.
The temple grounds are impressive. As with most Buddhist temples in China you'll find that your tour begins with a confrontation – with the two Chinese guardian lions (ShiShi) that loom by the sides of the gate. Don't panic. They are there to protect the building and there's plenty of Buddhist symbolism to be found in these two lions alone. The open mouth (on the male) and closed mouth (on the female) represent the sacred word; "om". The ball under the male's paw represents the life-cycle. They are also placed to achieve perfect feng shui directly in line with the entrance of the building under guard.
You'll need to time your trip for early in the day or your 5 RMB (that's less than $1) entrance fee might be wasted as the buildings are all closed to visitors after 2.30 p.m. Pay the man at the gate and then wander inside.
Inside Fayuan Temple
The layout of Fayuan is very much in keeping with China's other Buddhist temples, so you won't get lost despite the size of the complex (over 6,700 square meters). It's a straight and long line of interconnected gates and hallways in front of you and the whole temple is symmetrical.
Your travels start at the Gate of the Temple where you can see the Drum and Bell towers. There's not much to see inside either of these so you might want to save yourself a trip up the stairs. In the drum tower is a drum which is used to keep time (and more importantly represent time) and add fervor to worship sessions. In the bell tower, you've guessed it, is a bell which in addition to calling people to worship represents the tradition of eternity in Buddhism.
There's a couple of shops in this area but they aren't particularly interesting. You'll find some China souvenirs and some basic food and drink. Save yourself for a tour of the temple and bring some water with you.
Head to the Main Hall and look out for the statues of China's three holiest Buddhist saints; Vairocana Buddha, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra. You should be able to spot them easily enough as you travel through the building.
Then head to the Hall of Great Compassion. It's the reason why this is such a unique spot on a China vacation. You'll find the oldest Buddhist statues in China. The “Pottery Statue of Sitting Buddha” dates back to somewhere between 25 and 220 A.D. It was built during the Eastern Han Dynasty period and is absolutely one of a kind.
While you're here, make sure you take some time out of your trip to talk to some of China's best educated Buddhist monks. The temple is home to China's largest teaching college and museum for Buddhism too. Alternatively spend a few minutes on a tour of your own inner self meditating in the grounds.
Fayuan Temple is a great place to find some peace and quiet on your China tour. It's never really busy and it's the perfect place to escape the crowds. Don't forget that it is a place of worship and though you're on vacation in China almost everyone else is not – so be respectful if you visit and remember to wear long sleeves and trousers and remove your hat and shoes before entering any buildings.