29 Day Epic China (2012)


Tour Itinerary


Day 1 Depart USA
Board Air China non-stop flight to Beijing
Board Air China non-stop flight to Beijing
Your exotic journey to China begins as you board China's national airline, Air China non-stop flight bound for Beijing. En route, cross the International Dateline and lose a day. You'll recover this day on your return trip.      (IM)     

 


Air China Flight Schedule
 
Day 2 Beijing
Bird Nest, the main venue of 2008 Summer Olympics
Bird Nest, the main venue of 2008 Summer Olympics
Arrive in Beijing in the late afternoon. Meet your local representative and transfer to your hotel in the center of Beijing. Your hotel is conveniently located near the Chang An Avenue, along which are Beijing's major shopping malls, upscale restaurants, and tourist attractions. Relax and enjoy the evening in China’s historic and vibrant capital city.      Marriott Beijing City Wall   
 
Day 3 Beijing
Last Emperor "Forbidden City"
Last Emperor's "Forbidden City"

Visit old Beijing Hutong on pedi-cabs
Visit old Beijing's Hutong on pedi-cabs
After a hearty breakfast and a tour briefing, you visit the Tiananmen Square. At 100 acres, it is the world's largest public square, flanked by an assortment of historical buildings, huge museums and Communist monuments, including Mao's Mausoleum. One visitor has written, "An army could be massed, and all the kites in the world could fly." You roam the Square; and walk through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, under the famed portrait of Chairman Mao, to enter the Forbidden City, the symbolic center of the Chinese universe and a lasing monument of dynastic China, from which 24 emperors of the Ming and the Qing Dynasties ruled the Middle Kingdom for nearly 500 years (1420-1911).

Completed in 1420, the Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the world's largest palace complex and China's most magnificent imperial architecture, consisting of many buildings with 9,999 rooms, on a 250-acre compound, protected by a 20-foot-wide moat and a 32-foot-high wall. Now known as the Palace Museum, the Forbidden City was the exclusive domain of the imperial court and dignitaries where outside visitors were forbidden for 5 centuries. Here you will explore the imperial treasures in the grand palaces and pavilions, exquisite courtyards and gardens in what was once the residence of China's rulers.

Afterwards, join our Culture InSites™ Program for a rickshaw ride along Old Beijing's Hutongs (narrow ancient alleys) to discover the sights and sounds of local Beijing life in these traditional Chinese neighborhoods. See the locals as they go about their daily activities; and tour the maze-like alleyways and courtyard houses before it's gone forever. Highlights include visits to a traditional courtyard home, to a local market, and a leisure walk along the "Lotus Lane" lined with bars, restaurants and tea houses. This unique tour features a delicious lunch served at a local family home with a Chinese dumpling-making demonstration.

Return to your hotel for some free time in the afternoon. In the evening, we are gathering for a welcome dinner of a specially prepared meal of Beijing Duck, cooked to crispy perfection.      (B,L,SD)     

 
 
Day 4 Beijing
The "Summer Palace" for Empress Dowager Cixi
The "Summer Palace" for Empress Dowager Cixi

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu section
The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu section
A memorable day awaits with an excursion to the Great Wall of China at the less-visited Mutianyu section.

In the morning, you take a scenic drive through the countryside and mountains to reach China's most renowned monument—the Great Wall. Since the Great Wall is the single greatest attraction of China travel, we take you to the less-visited and more "original" Mutianyu section and try to avoid other sections which are the most accessible and consequently the most crowded.

The wall was begun in the 5th century BC to keep out foreign invaders. Construction continued for centuries, eventually linking up the walls of the former independent kingdoms. The Great Wall meanders through China's northern mountain ranges from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert—a distance of over 3500 miles! Chairman Mao once said "You haven't walked on the Wall, you haven't been a good Chinese". And today, you'll not only visit the Great Wall, but experience it in more ways than one—Learning some of the fascinating history and legend of this engineering marvel, riding a gondola up to the highest point for panoramic views of this ancient edifice, exploring its impressive watchtowers, ramparts, carriageways at your own pace, or, hoping on a toboggan for an exciting ride down the curvy path…today is a highlight of your China vacation.

Later, you tour the idyllic Summer Palace, once the summer retreat and playground for the imperial family and royal court during the late Qing Dynasty. Considered the finest Chinese imperial garden, the Summer Palace spans over 700 acres with breathtaking views, temples, pavilions, palaces and halls including the lavishly painted "Long Corridor". It is most associated, however, with the Empress Dowager Cixi who paid for the extravagant Marble Boat with funds meant for the modernization of the Imperial Navy.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 5 Beijing - Urumqi
"Hall of Supreme Harmony", Temple of Heaven
"Hall of Supreme Harmony", Temple of Heaven

The Tianshan Mountain of Xinjiang
The Tianshan Mountain of Xinjiang
In the morning, you visit the Temple of Heaven, the largest temple complexes in China and a paradigm of Chinese architectural balance and symbolism. One key element in China's architectural genius was the blending of the monumental with the delicate, and the Temple of Heaven is perhaps the finest expression of this mixing of near opposite.

During each winter solstice, the Ming and Qing emperors would perform rites and make sacrifices to Heaven praying for good harvest for their empire. The most striking edifice is the "Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests", which according to the emperor's Fengshui masters, is the exact point where heaven and Earth met. Built in 1420 (without the use of a single nail), this masterpiece of Ming architecture, features triple eaves, dramatically carved marble balustrades, and gorgeous glazed azure roof that symbolizes the color of heaven. This 120-foot-high structure is fixed by four inner pillars represent the seasons, and two sets of 12 columns denote the months and the traditional Chinese division of a day.

Later, you are transfer to the airport for a flight to Urumqi, capital of the vast, dry expanse of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China's remote northwest. Upon arrival, meet and transfer to your hotel centrally located in the heart of the city.      Hoi Tak Hotel  (B,L,IM)     

 
 
Day 6 Heavenly Lake - Kashgar
The Heavenly Lake
The Heavenly Lake

The Kazakh nomads predominate the North Xinjiang
The Kazakh nomads predominate the North Xinjiang
Xinjiang, literally the "New Frontier", is China's Alaska, a region of extremes-stunning mountain ranges, sapphire blue lakes, blasted terrain, and the deadly sweep of the Taklamakan Desert...It is divided into northern grasslands and southern deserts by the Heavenly Mountains; Kazakh nomads predominate in the northern pastures and Uighur farmers are a majority in the southern desert basin.

No city in the world is more distant from the sea than Urumqi (meaning "the beautiful pastures"); today, it is the most industrialized city on the old Silk Road. A scenic drive in the morning takes you high into the Tianshan Mountains to Heavenly Lake for a relaxing break in your journey. You have time to explore the alpine wilderness, savor the fresh air and then take a cruise on the lake. This area is home to the Kazakh and you have an opportunity to visit a local Kazakh family at their yurt home.

After dinner, you are transferred to the airport for a flight to Kashgar, a medieval town, an oasis post and a vibrant Islamic center within Chinese territory.      Kashgar Tianyuan Hotel  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 7 Kashgar
Uygurs at Sunday market
Uygurs at Sunday market

The unforgettable visit to Kashgar
The unforgettable visit to Kashgar's Sunday Bazaar
No Silk Road trip is complete without visiting Kashgar. This oasis town is located at a great junction in the Silk Road where the northern and southern routes reunited before threaded west into Persia and on to Europe. Heading east, traders swap horses and yaks for camels to cross the vast deserts of China. Heading west, they readied their pack animals to brave the high mountain passes into central Asia. Marco Polo heralded Kashgar in the 13th century as the "Starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares to the world".

In the morning, you take a leisure tour to the famous Sunday Bazaar, the largest open-air market in Asia that has been held here for the past 1,500 years. Every Sunday, around 100,000 people gather in the enormous Kashgar Bazaar area where you can buy anything from goats' heads and hooves to colorful painted wooden saddles. Here, you will encounter some of the many different nationalities bringing their wares into town for trade; Uygurs, Han Chinese, Kazaks, Kirgizs, Tajiks, Pakistanis, and Afghanistan. The traditional costumes and food give it an almost medieval feel and bring alive the legends of your adventure to the Silk Road. It is in this giant oasis, near the westernmost tip of China that your epic overland journey reaches its height.

Lunch at a local restaurant to sample the local flavor. Afterwards, you visit the Abakh Khoja Tomb, the holiest site in the entire Xinjiang, with a large dome of dazzling glazed green tiles. It is a masterpiece of Uygur architecture. Legend has it that Iparhan, a descendant of Abakh Khoja, exuded an enchanting natural scent as sweet as the bloom of a flower and therefore was given the name "Fragrant Concubine" by the Qing Emperor, whom she married for 28 years. Living in Beijing but missing her parents in Kashgar, She died at the age of 55. After her death, the Emperor ordered an empty coffin full of the clothes she used to wear to sent back to home town of Kashgar and that trip consumed 120 people 3 years. The original cart carrying the coffin still stands in front of the mausoleum. Later, you tour the Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China, and accommodates up to 20,000 prayers.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 8 Turpan
The Jiaohe Ruins, an UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Jiaohe Ruins, an UNESCO World Heritage Site

An Uygur girl
An Uygur girl
After breakfast, you are transfer to the airport for your flight to Urumqi, upon arrival, travel by motorcoach to the Oasis town of Turpan—a luxuriant staging post at the foot of the Heavenly Mountain, imprisoned in the sterile void of the surrounding terrain.

Drive to Turpan is an unforgettable and invigorating experience. En route, you pass the snow-capped Heavenly Mountain Ranges, through the remarkable Taklamakan Desert and view the massive amount of wind mills near Babancheng.

At Turpan, the northern route of the Silk Road steps into one of the deepest continental basin on Earth - the Turpan Depression at 505 ft. below sea level. It is a model Silk Road oasis, a sleepy desert down shaded by poplar trees and grape arbors, peopled by Uygur in traditional dress and irrigated by vast system of hand-dug underground channels that funnel the melting snows of the Heavenly Moutains into Turpan.

Upon arrival, you tour the ruins of Gaochang, once the prosperous kingdom of 7th century. Later, you visit Karez Wells - the remarkable underground irrigation system that were first engineered 2,000 years ago, based on a Persian design. For the past 20 centuries, the melting snow and glaciers on the Heavenly Mountain have reached Turpan through this massive underground network of tunnels and more than 3,000 miles of tunnels have been hand-dug under the desert floor at Turpan.

Tonight, you relax and sit under the vineyards for a typical Uygur meal of crispy roast lamb skewers, followed by the Uygur singing and dancing show.      Tuha Petroleum Hotel  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 9 Turpan
The Flaming Mountain
The Flaming Mountain

The Grape Gorge of Turpan
The Grape Gorge of Turpan
In the morning, you tour the Flaming Mountains, well-known scenery in a 16th-century Chinese classics "Journey to the West". This 60-mile long bluff consists of barren red limestone and resembles a tableau of raging flames when ignited by the afternoon sun. In the novel, the monk Xuan Zang and his companion Monkey King attempted to cross the Flaming Mountains but could not penetrate the flames. The Monkey King procured a magical palm-leaf fan from Princess Iron Fan and waved it 49 times, causing heavy rains to fall and extinguish the fire. Nevertheless, the locals now add that, while attempting to cross the Flaming Mountains, Monkey King burnt his tail, and ever since then all monkeys have had red bottoms.

Then you continue to the northeast of Turpan to visit the 5-century AD Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves in stunning surroundings, high up a cliff in the Murtuk River gorge. After lunch at a local restaurant, you tour the famed Grape Gorge - a park of vineyards and fruit groves, to sample its renowned mare-nipple grapes, honeydew melons and wine of this region.

The highlight of today is to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of ancient Jiaohe Ruins. The impressive ruins lie in the Yarnaz Valley west of Turpan, on an island at the confluence of two rivers. The city, built on a high plateau, was established as a garrison during the Han Dynasty. Despite destruction in the 13th century by Mongol hordes, large fragments of actual streets and building remains including a Buddhist monastery, Buddhist statues, a row of bleached pagodas, a observation tower, government centers and even a prison.

After dinner, you are transferred to the train station for an overnight train ride to Dunhuang. Following the path of the Northern Silk Road, you journey east across the Gobi Desert into China's Gansu Province.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 10 Dunhuang
Visit the Sand Dunes of Dunhuang on a camel ride
Visit the Sand Dunes of Dunhuang on a camel ride

The murals of Mogao Caves
The murals of Mogao Caves
Wake up to the sunrise on the immense desert; you arrive in Dunhuang, a small oasis town, but in many ways the most important outpost on the Silk Road.

Dunhuang, literally means Blazing Beacon, was a vital and flourishing caravan stop, the westernmost oasis under Chinese control in the early days of Silk Road. Two thousand years ago, when Buddhist first entered China, Dunhuang lay on a principal trade route along which flowed emissaries from myriad cultures of Central Asia. The town marked a confluence of artistic styles and philosophies, becoming an important center of Buddhism and a place of devout pilgrimage. Three major trading routes from the West merged here, making it a major supply center. Dunhuang shelters one of the most significant capitals of early Buddhist art in China.

Upon arrival, transfer to your hotel for a rest. Later, you set off to visit the Dunhuang Museum. Afterwards, you tour the Singing Sand Dunes on a camel ride. The dunes look like a poster of the Sahara. In their deep folds, they trap underground springs, creating Crescent Moon Lake, a celebrated pool where Silk Road travelers, including Marco Polo, paused to drink. A popular saying at Dunhuang goes: "The skill of man made the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, but the Hand of God fashioned the Lake of the Crescent Moon".

Your hotel is located at the foot of the Sand Dunes and at the end of the day, you enjoy a stunning view of the sunset and the evening breeze of the desert. "      Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 11 Dunhuang
Mogao Caves, an UNESCO World Heritage Site
Mogao Caves, an UNESCO World Heritage Site

A mural inside the Mogao Caves
A mural inside the Mogao Caves
On a full day excursion you visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the the Mogao Caves - China's richest treasure house of Buddhist paintings, statues, and manuscripts. Nearly 500 grottoes pierce the desert cliffs above a dry river valley and were created over a thousand-year period stretching from the 4th century to the 14th century AD. Nine dynasties rose and fell during this time, and the artists of each period contributed. The art illuminates a time when Dunhuang was a major center of Central Asian culture and the main contact point between China and the rest of the world.

The first caves are said to have been built in 366 AD and the last one carved out a the time of the Mongolian conquest in 1277. After that, Mogao sunk into oblivion, until the monk Wang Yuanlu settled here at the turn of the 20th century. As news spread of the survival of the caves and of Wang's discovery in 1900 of the Dunhuang manuscripts, foreign archaeologists and explorers began turning up in Dunhuang buying valuable manuscripts and scroll paintings, and removing statues. The richness of the material created a whole field of study known as "Dunhuangology".      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 12 Hexi Corridor - Jiayuguan Pass
Oasis along the Hexi Corridor
Oasis along the Hexi Corridor

A ruin of the ancient Great Wall at Yangguan Pass
A ruin of the ancient Great Wall at Yangguan Pass
Follow the footsteps of the caravans on the ancient Silk Road, you travel eastward through the barren strip of the Hexi Corridor, the geographical boundary between China proper and the west, heading for the desert town of Jiayuguan Pass. En route, you drive at the foot of the snowcapped mountain of Qilian, into the deep desert, passing the barren landscape of the Gobi, the villages of earthen houses, and the ancient fortress ruins. You stop for a lunch at the Jade Pass, the last frontier of the ancient Middle Kingdom, according to a Chinese saying, even "the spring wind does not go beyond the Jade Pass". Deep into the desert you reach the ruins of Qiaowan, the dream city where the Qing Dynasty emperor ordered a palace built. Stark but fascinating desert scenery compensates for the rather bumpy journey and before you know it you are entering the cultivated fields surrounding the oasis town of Jiayuguan.

Historically, Gansu Province has been a vital conduit between China and the western world, the beginning of the Silk Road along with merchants for centuries transported their wares until shifting power and maritime trade rendered it obsolete. This area first became part of China proper in the Qin Dynasty (B.C. 221 - 206). Buddhism made its way into China through here as early as the first century BC. Gansu became the edge of China, the last link with the Middle Kingdom and therefore with civilization. The Great Wall, the most solid representation of ancient Chinese opinion of the outside world, passes through China to the greatest fortress at Jiayuguan, beyond which lay Dunhuang, and then perdition.      Jiayuguan Huayuan Hotel  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 13 Jiayuguan Pass - Xian
The west end of the Great Wall
The west end of the Great Wall

The Jiayuguan Pass
The Jiayuguan Pass
After breakfast, you visit the famed Jiayuguan Pass-the single most stunning sight along the Silk Road. When the First Emperor, Qinshihuang, unified ancient sections of the wall in 221BC, Jiayuguan did mark the end of the Great Wall. Under the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368 - 1644), when the Wall achieved its final form, Jiayuguan became the garrison on the final frontier. You will learn why the Great Wall ends here: it controls the route through the Jade Pass that threaded the Silk Road between the snowcapped Qilian Mountain to the south and the Black Mountains of the Horse Mane range to the north. Jiayuguan Pass is a marvelous outpost to behold, its illustrious gate towers rising 35 feet from the desert. Several layers of formidable walls were built in the Gobi Desert. Inside is an assortment of buildings, including a temple and a theater where Qing troops were entertained. Walk on the walls and stroll along the battlements. This spectacular structure traditionally marks the barrier's westernmost extremity. In the afternoon, enjoy an excursion to visit a group of tombs from Wei (AD 220 - 265) and Jin (AD 265 - 420) Dynasties. Tour the underground chambers and see the murals that depicting the daily life of the locals dating back to 2,000 years ago.

Later, you fly to Xian, the ancient capital of The Middle Kingdom and the eastern starting point of the Silk Road. Located in the Yellow River Basin in China's heartland, Xian is one of the birthplaces of civilization. It has seen 3,100 years of development and 11 dynasties, giving it equal fame with Athens, Rome and Cairo as one of the four major ancient civilization capitals. Xian reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty at 10th century with a population of one million and is rich with cultural and historical significances.      Xian Grand Noble Hotel  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 14 Xian
The Wild Goose Pagoda, a Tang Dynasty landmark
The Wild Goose Pagoda, a Tang Dynasty landmark

Tang Dynasty stage show
Tang Dynasty stage show
Today's excursion will take you to modern China's greatest archaeological discovery - The Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses, which silently guarded the tomb of China's First Emperor for over 2,200 years. In 1974, a local farmer uncovered the first of three massive earth and timber vaults, while digging a well. The extensive excavation, still in progress, has yielded over 6000 life-sized terra cotta warriors, each individually sculpted, with the physical characteristics of the humans they were modeled after. Archers, infantrymen, horses and bronze chariots have also been unearthed. A Circle Vision documentary is available on site. Lunch at a local restaurant and see a noodle making demonstration.

Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), traditionally regarded as the golden age of China, was a time of patricians and intellectuals, Buddhist monks and Taoist priests, poetry and music, song and dance - a period of peace and exceptional creativity lasting 300 years. This evening, you attend a feast of culinary and cultural delights with a special Dumpling (dim sum) banquet followed by a fascinating Tang Dynasty stage show. Indulge yourself in this remarkable show and reinvent your China dream with a travel back in time to the world of China's Golden Age, then come back to the present with a greater understanding of this amazing time.      (B,L,SD)     

 
 
Day 15 Xian - Guilin
Wild Goose Pagoda, a Tang landmark
Wild Goose Pagoda, a Tang landmark

Guilin
Guilin's inspiring sceneries
This morning, tour the Wild Goose Pagoda, a Tang Dynasty landmark. This seven-story pagoda was initially constructed in 652 AD to house the Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the monk, Xuan Zang, who later translated them into Chinese. His pilgrimage to India is immortalized in the Chinese classic - The Journey to the West.

Today's Culture InSites™ Program will offer you a rare opportunity to witness a real rural life at a typical village in central China. You visit a rural primary school and mingle with students and faculties at their classroom. Later, you stop at a "Yao Dong" (Literally an arched tunnel) - a typical cave dwellings that stretches across six provinces in north central China. The "Yao Dong" is caves dug into mountainsides with a signature arched front. Usually, one family unit consists of three arched openings, and the units are interconnected inside. The center cave can be termed the "living room", which includes a stovetop cooking area. The two side caves are sleeping quarters. Outside of the cities of this region, some 90% of the rural population live in yaodongs.

In the late afternoon, you fly to Guilin and indulge yourself in China's most amazing natural landscapes. Guilin, literally "Osmanthus Forrest", is celebrated for its picturesque karst limestone pinnacles and meandering Li River. An old Chinese saying describes Guilin's landscape as "the best scenery under heaven". Its misty limestone peaks "rise as suddenly from the earth as trees in a forest, and surrounding the city like mountains floating in an imaginary sea". Meet your local representative and transfer to your hotel in the heart of the city. Your hotel is located on a riverside avenue of the sweet-scented cassia trees and overlooks the Li River. It's a place for relaxation and also offers a perfect escapade after one week of group travel.      Sheraton Hotel Guilin  (B,L,IM)     

 
 
Day 16 Dragon Spine Terraces
Long Sheng
Long Sheng's Dragon Spine Rice Terraces
This part of the country encompasses China's most famous scenic landscapes. Before discovering the best treasures Guilin has to offer, we start an off-the-beaten-path hiking tour to Long Sheng's spectacular Dragon Spine Rice Terraces.

Over the centuries, the Zhuang and Yao minorities have sculpted 2,000 feet peaks with remarkable step-like terraces for growing rice in the hilly areas of Southwest China. This transformation over time has created landscapes of utility as well as immense beauty. In Spring, when the terraces are full of water, they resemble irregular silver ladders; and in autumn, when the rice ripens, the mountains turn into golden waves.

Visit the unique culture of local minorities and their villages where life has remained unchanged for thousands of years! we are able to hike between the villages following tiny stone paths carved out by the local people. This memorable journey is rarely included in the conventional itinerary.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 17 Li River Cruise - Yangshuo
Cruise the Li River and soak in its natural beauty
Cruise the Li River and soak in its natural beauty

Guilin landmark Li River and limestone peaks
Guilin's landmark Li River and limestone peaks
A beautiful day waits! You take a scenic motor coach ride through the countryside, past lush green fields and rice paddies. Arrive at a local village and embark on a memorable Li River cruise. The 40-mile trip has countless twists and turns. The scenery is reminiscent of classical Chinese landscapes - bamboo groves, sleepy villages, fishermen on bamboo rafts, cormorants, water buffalo, soaring karst pinnacles and mist shrouded peaks... your cruise concludes at the famed Yangshuo, a small town, amidst a haunting and surreal setting.

Upon arrival, check into your hotel and enjoy a free afternoon to explore this fascinating town on your own. You may rent a tuk-tuk to visit local farmers' fields and homes, or take a bicycle to the Moon Hill. Yangshuo's landscape of limestone hills, rice fields and lazy rivers is the very image of rural China. Taking a bike through this much-painted landscape provides a great way to experience the dramatic countryside, ancient villages and bustling local markets in a very personal way.

Tonight, you may attend an optional singing & lighting show "Liu Sa Jie" which was directed by Zhang Yimou who also choreographed the opening ceremony of 2008 Beijing Olympics.      (B,L)     

 
 
Day 18 Guilin - Chengdu
Visit Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center
Visit Chengdu's Giant Panda Breeding Center

Eating in Chengdu is a serious business
Eating in Chengdu is a serious business
In the morning, you fly to Chengdu, the capital city of China's most populous Sichuan (Literally, Four Rivers) Province and home to China's most notable Sichuan cuisine. With 2,500 years history, Chengdu has managed to preserve some of its older characteristics and traditions, and today you still find famous teahouses, numerous markets and some of China's the most interesting and spicy food. No visit is complete without a meal in a local Sichuan restaurant. The cuisine is spicy, and peppercorns and chilies abound, but often in a surprisingly subtle way. Whether it's hotpot, meat or a vegetable dish, your mouth will water and your taste buds tingle with delight.

Upon arrival, you enjoy a rare opportunity to visit the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center to witness the conservation efforts being made to save this endangered species. The center is the largest giant panda reserve in the world. Whenever China dispatches its animal ambassadors to zoos around the world, they have usually started their life in Chengdu. Eighty percent of the world's 1,000 remaining giant panda reside in Sichuan Province. It's no surprise the Chengdu center is heavily involved in their preservation and research. Today you will see a dozen of pandas wandering through a sizable domain of bamboo groves and forest. There is also a panda museum that has detailed exhibitions on panda evolution, habits, habitats and conservation efforts. You are also allowed to make intimate contact with baby pandas and hug them for a photo. Giant Panda is officially considered "National Treasure" by Chinese government and is often used to cultivate relationships with other countries with "Panda Diplomacy". This massive ecological and zoological park offers a wonderful chance to get face-to-face with China's gentle giants. There are other rare species at the base, including the little-known red panda.

Chengdu has long been famous for its steamy teahouses, where locals recline on bamboo armchairs, play mahjong and meet with friends. For a relaxing afternoon with our exclusive Culture InSites™ Program, you sample a Sichuan style afternoon tea with locals in one of the many traditional bamboo teahouses scattered in parks across the city. You can while away an afternoon sipping tea and watching the locals read newspapers, play Sichuan Opera, debate, play chess, cards, and mahjong. You may even be invited to give it a try yourself. Chengdu is commonly regarded as the most laid back city in China and today's visit gives you the answer why. This unique experience concludes at the Park of Riverview Pavilion set along the river. Check out the ancient Chongli Pavilion dedicated to the 9th century poetess Xue Tao with its striking ornaments, green glazed tiles and red lacquered columns, surrounded by over one hundred varieties of bamboo. A leisure walk in the serene bamboo forest in an experience not to be missed.

After dinner, you will be offered an opportunity to attend an optional performance of "Changing faces" at the 200-year-old Sichuan opera. Full of local color and flavor, Sichuan Opera, is a combination of music, comedy, puppets and acrobatic performances, including Changing Face, Spitting Fire and Bowl-lamp Rolling. The opera is performed in old halls or courtyard buildings and is a feast for the eyes.      Chengdu Tibet Hotel  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 19 Tsetang
Fly over the snow-capped moutains of Tibetan Plateau
Fly over the snow-capped moutains of Tibetan Plateau

Tibetan family visit
Tibetan family visit
In the morning, you fly to Lhasa, the spiritual heart of Tibet. En route, you enjoy a fantastic view of the snowcapped mountain ranges as you fly over the Tibetan Plateau - the earth's highest ecosystem and one of its last remaining great wildernesses, also the source of Asia's greatest rivers. Half way to Lhasa you pass the great White citadel of Minya Konka at 24,783 feet. Now you fly over the Hengduan Range and the deep, gloomy valleys of three Asia's greatest rivers: the Mekong, the Salween, and the Yangtze. As you near the Plateau you'll likely to catch sight of another impressive peak, 25,439-foot Namcha Barwa, the easternmost rampart of the Himalaya.

Upon arrival at Gongkar Airport, two hours outside of Lhasa, you meet your Tibetan guide and driver, and together you take a scenic drive to Tsetang, the spiritual heartland of Tibet. Stop en route to visit Tibetan villages and schools; and make photos of the Tibetan houses, yaks, Buddhist carvings, and the remarkable landscape of streams and snowcapped mountains. Yarlong Valley is considered the cradle of Tibetan civilization. The town of Tsetang is said to have been built on the spot where Bodhisattva descended from heaven in the shape of a monkey and with the help of a female demon, produced the first Tibetan. Check into your hotel and enjoy the remainder of the day at leisure to acclimate to the high altitude (11,000 feet).      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 20 Yamdrok Yumtso - Lhasa
Travel along the Yamdrok Yumtso, the Holy Lake
Travel along the Yamdrok Yumtso, the Holy Lake

Visit to a local Tibetan family home
Visit to a local Tibetan family home
After breakfast, you visit Samye, the first monastery in Tibet. Afterwards, you take a scenic drive to the holy lake of Yamdrok Yumtso (tso means lake) to enjoy the natural beauty of this mystical land. You follow the Kyichu, or the Lhasa River to Tsangpo River, the highest major river in the world. After crossing the Tsangpo, you begin a hairpin ascent to reach Khampa La (La means pass) at 15,700 feet. From the pass you make a one-thousand-foot descent and arrive at tranquil Yamdrok Yumtso. You stop here to enjoy a picnic... rarely included in conventional itineraries. This scenic excursion gives you a nice break from peering at Buddhist deities.

Afterwards, you take a scenic drive to Lhasa along the Yamdrok Yumtso (tso means lake) to enjoy the natural beauty of this mystical land. You follows the Kyichu, or the Lhasa River to Tsangpo River, the highest major river in the world. After crossing the Tsangpo, you begin a hairpin ascent to reach Khampa La (La means pass) at 15,700 feet. From the pass you make a one-thousand-foot descent and arrive at tranquil Yamdrok Yumtso. You stop here to enjoy a picnic... rarely included in conventional itineraries, This scenic excursion gives you a nice break from peering at Buddhist deities.

Lhasa means "country of the gods" and it rose to prominence as an important administrative center in the 7th century AD, when Songtsen Gampo, a local ruler in the Yarlung Valley, continued the task initiated by his father of unifying Tibet. Songtsen Gampo moved his capital to Lhasa and build a palace on the site now occupied by the Potala. At this time the temples of Ramoche and Jokhang were established to Buddha images brought as the dowries of Songtsen Gampo's Chinese and Nepali wives.      Jardin Secret Hotel Lhasa  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 21 Lhasa
Potala Palace, once the residence of Dalai Lama
Potala Palace, once the residence of Dalai Lama

Monks debating at  the Sera Temple
Monks debating at the Sera Temple
An unforgettable day begins with a tour to the monumental Potala Palace whose imposing presence dominates the entire region. Once the residence of the Dalai Lama, and seat of the Tibetan government, the 13-story structure has been a museum since the spiritual leader and head of state of Tibet went into exile in 1959. Initially built in the 7th century, the buildings were restored and expanded upon in the 17th century. There are two main sections. The Red Palace, completed in 1693, which dealt with spiritual matters, and the White Palace, completed in 1645, which housed administrative offices that ran the government.

Lunch at a local restaurant, afterwards, you visit to Sera Monastery, one of the most important centers of the Yellow Hat sect and also a pillar of the theocratic state. During its most active period nearly 5,000 monks lived in this monastery. The debating session held between monks in the afternoon attracts pilgrims and visitors alike.

Today's Culture InSites™ Program will offer you an insightful visit to a local Tibet family home where you have a people-to-people experience with the locals and enjoy the famous yak-butter tea.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 22 Lhasa
The view from the roof of Jakhang Temple
The view from the roof of Jakhang Temple

Tibetan Lama at Barkhor
Tibetan Lama at Barkhor
Your tour begins in the heart of the old city at Jokhang Temple, Tibet's holiest temple, which was often referred to by early Western visitors as Lhasa's cathedral. Built in 647 AD, the Jokhang Temple attracts pilgrims throughout the day and night. They will often be seen in full prostration on the flagstones leading up to the temple or in prayer. The pioneering Tibetologist Guissepe Tucci wrote: "An endless, three-story high flight of chapels surrounds the statue, decorated with the smiling and sneering Buddhist pantheon. Blissful and terrific gods fill the shade of the cells and peer unexpectedly out of their mystery."

Surrounding Jokhang is the Barkhor, the Pilgrim's Circuit, Lhasa's old market. This area is full of activity with monks chanting, vendors selling their wares, yak butter wafting in the air and hundreds of people moving in a clockwise direction. Much has been changed in Tibet in the past few hundred years, but the Barkhor still has the air of a medieval bazaar. In today's Barkhor you can bargain good-naturedly for dorjes, phurbas, thangkas, and other religious implements. You'll get to know the proud, red-tasseled Khampas from eastern Tibet, the monks, mendicants, pilgrims who circumambulate the Jokhang, and enjoy bantering with the astute and engaging merchants of this bit of old Tibet.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 23 Lhasa - Yangtze Cruise
3-night Yangtze Cruise aboard M.V. President Prime
3-night Yangtze Cruise aboard M.V. President Prime

The Yangtze River trackers
The Yangtze River trackers
After breakfast, you fly to the mountain city of Chongqing in preparation for your cruise downstream the Yangtze. Chongqing is China's largest city with a population of over 30 million. During WWII, Chongqing was China's wartime capital. U.S. General Stillwell was the Commander of the US Forces here and the "Flying Tigers" was also based in Chongqing. In the afternoon, you visit Chongqing's Old Town. This is one of China's most naturally preserved, active old towns. Explore Ming and Qing dynasty courtyard homes; rarely included in conventional itineraries, this old quarter is unforgettable.

Later, you board M.V. President Prime with private balcony. Settle into your cabin and check out the numerous amenities on board. The Yangtze River originates on the Tibetan Plateau and traverses a distance of 3900 miles before flowing into the East China Sea, near Shanghai. It is the third longest river in the world, after the Amazon and the Nile. With over 700 tributaries, the Yangtze River has been the lifeline and major commercial thoroughfare in China for millennia.      M.V. President Prime  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 24 Yangtze Cruise
Qutang Gorge, the shortest and narrowest of 3 Gorges
Qutang Gorge, the shortest and narrowest of 3 Gorges
Your cruiser sets sail early in the morning and later stops at Fengdu. You then take a shore excursion to explore China's city of Ghosts, where all souls are said to return here to accept final judgments after their death. You visit temples and shrines dedicated to the gods of the underworld and other landmarks including "Ghost Torturing Pass, Last-glance-at-home Tower, and Nothing-to-be-done Bridge.

Back onboard in the afternoon; your cruise continues and enters Qutang Gorge - the shortest, narrowest and probably the most fascinating of the three, noted for its fantastic scenery resembling an elegant Chinese painted scroll. Tonight is Captain's welcome banquet.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 25 Yangtze Cruise
Cruise "Lesser Three Gorges" on "peapod" boat
Cruise "Lesser Three Gorges" on "peapod" boat

Tweleve misty peaks of Wu Gorges
Tweleve misty peaks of Wu Gorges
Another day of incredible views awaits you upon entering Qutang Gorge. The softly layered peaks form a surreal backdrop as the ship courses through the rugged canyons. So sheer are the cliffs that it is said the sun rarely penetrates. Wu Gorge, celebrated for its twelve misty peaks soaring above, has been the inspiration of Chinese painters and poets throughout the centuries. The most famous is Goddess Peak, which resembles the figure of a maiden kneeling in front of a pillar. She is believed to be the embodiment of Yao Ji, the 23rd daughter of the Queen Mother of the West. Yao Ji, accompanied by 11 fairy handmaidens, was sent to oversee the Jade Pool of the Western Heaven, and end up staying there to protect the boats from the dangerous rapids. These 12 maidens became the 12 sentinel peaks of Wu Gorge.

You then change to the "peapod" boat for a trip up the crystal-clear Daning River through its magnificent Lesser Three Gorges to experience the excitement and awe of bygone days of river travel in China. Notice the ruins of the ancient plank road along the cliff face as well as the coffins of the Ba people suspended from the cliffs above. The contrasting heights of these gorges and the narrowness of the river make this area one of the most dramatic scenes in the world. Tonight you have a dinner featuring local cuisine and enjoy onboard entertainment.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 26 Three Gorges Dam - Shanghai
Enter Xiling Gorge
Enter Xiling Gorge

Visit "Three Gorges Dam"" construction sites
Visit "Three Gorges Dam" construction sites
Your memorable cruise continues as you enter the spectacular Xiling Gorge. Choose your vantage point as the ship transits the five stage shiplocks, the largest shiplock in the world. Your cruiser makes a brief stop at Sandouping, the site of modern China's most ambitious engineering project - the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and Hydroelectric Power Plant. View the current phase of this 17 year project. When completed, the dam will be 610 feet high and over a mile wide. The hydroelectrical power plant will be driven by the world's largest turbines and have the generating capacity of 18 nuclear power plants. A reservoir 372 miles long will be created, with the end result of displacing 1.5 million people, submerging 1000s of their towns and villages and wiping out numerous archaeological sites. Whole cities have been relocated, precious topsoil brought to higher elevations and centuries-old lifestyles altered forever.

Disembark at Yichang, the terminus of your memorable Yangtze cruise, you board a flight to Shanghai, China's vibrant financial and artistic center. Shanghai, literally means "above the sea", is China's largest and most dynamic city, with a population of 18 million. In the 13th century it became a minor county seat and so it remained until the mid-19th century when British commercial ambitions led to war with China. The ensuing Treaty of Nanking allowed the British to trade freely from certain ports including Shanghai. The city soon became an outpost of glamour, high living, and ultimately decadence. In the 1930s, Shanghai is renowned as "the Pearl of the East". Upon arrival, transfer to your hotel and enjoy the evening at leisure.      Pullman Shanghai Skyway Hotel  (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 27 Shanghai
Shanghai new skyline
Shanghai's new skyline

Walk on the Bund, the landmark of Shanghai
Walk on the Bund, the landmark of Shanghai
Some places are forever associated with a single landmark and in the case of Shanghai it is surely the Bund. After breakfast, you take a leisure walk along the waterfront promenade of the Bund. The Bund was at the heart of colonial shanghai, flanked on one side by the Huangpu River and on the other by the hotels, banks, offices, and clubs that were the grandiose symbols of western commercial power. See the ships and barges on the Huangpu River, en route to the sea or going upstream to the interior of China. The modernistic Oriental Pearl TV tower looms in the background redefining the skyline.

In 1949, the communist took over and Shanghai was stripped of its grandeur. In 1990, the Pudong area across the river from the Bund was declared as a special economic zone, and a revival started for the city. Today we take you to futurist Pudong New Developing Area. Transformed from once fertile farmland, this new area is rapidly becoming the symbol of modern China with its clusters of shinning metal and glass skyscrapers of world class hotels, international financial institutions, and commercial centers towered above the Huangpu River. Later you visit to the 88th floor of the Jinmao Tower, the third tallest building in China. At 1,380 feet, it is the world's fifth tallest building, as well as home to the world's tallest hotel - the Grand Hyatt Shanghai. From its lofty platform, you enjoy a stunning view of Shanghai.

Afterwards, you visit People's Square and tour the famed Shanghai Museum, an unique and inspiring piece of architecture, home to more than 120,000 cultural relics of ancient China, including a priceless collection of jade, bronze, ceramics, paintings, furniture, etc. After dinner, you attend an unforgettable performance of the Shanghai Acrobats.

Later, we drop you at the Xin Tian Di for a leisure and romantic night. Literally means "New Heaven Earth", it is Shanghai's trendiest lifestyle destination. This 2-block complex of high-end restaurants (some of Shanghai's best), bars, shops, and entertainment facilities, mostly lodged in refurbished traditional Shanghainese shikumen (stone-frame) housing, is the first phase of the Taiping Qiao Project, an urban renewal project. Busloads of domestic Chinese tourists traipse through in the evenings, Western visitors feel like they've never left home, and hip young Shanghainese flood here to enjoy the good life they feel they're due.      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 28 Suzhou & Tongli
Pavilion of Watching the Moon, Master of Net Garden
Pavilion of Watching the Moon, Master of Net Garden

Canals, arched bridges, and cobbled lanes at Tongli
Canals, arched bridges, and cobbled lanes at Tongli
In the morning you travel by motor-coach to Suzhou, which is often referred, by the Chinese, as the "Venice of the East". Suzhou is a 2,500-year-old city renowned the world over for its traditional gardens, ancient canals and silk production. In 1997 Suzhou's classic garden was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The construction of the Grand Canal in the 7th century created a means whereby silk, the prized commodity from this region could be transported to the Northern capital, Beijing, a distance of over 600 miles. With prosperity came prestige as merchants and artisans plied their trade. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Suzhou flourished as a place of refinement, drawing an influx of scholars and merchants, who built themselves numerous elegant gardens.

The Chinese garden developed as a synthesis of two concepts linked in Taoist philosophy - scenery and serenity: the contemplation of nature in isolated meditation led to enlightenment. Therefore, the educated and wealthy built natural-looking retreats for themselves with an urban environment. The garden creates poetic and painterly concepts, and aims to improve on nature in creating a picture that looks natural but is in fact entirely artificial. For this the Chinese garden designer used four main elements: rocks, water, plants, and architecture.

Upon arrival, you visit the Garden of the Master of Fishing Nets, and experience all of the elements of a classical Chinese garden. It is said that the Master of the Nets Garden was named after one of its owners - a retired official who wished to become an accomplished fisherman. Dating to 1140, it is considered by many, the finest of all Suzhou's gardens. Although exceptional small, it succeeds, with great subtlety, in introducing every element considered crucial to the classical Chinese garden. It includes a central lake, discreet connecting corridors, pavilions with miniature courtyards, screens, delicate latticework, and above all, points which "frame a view", as if looking at a perfectly balanced photograph. The best known building is the "Pavilion for Watching the Moon", from where the moon can be viewed in a mirror, in the water, and in the sky.

Later, you tour the Silk Spinning Mill, where you will learn how silk is created from the mulberry-munching silkworms to produce thread and fine cloth. Afterwards, you travel to Tongli, a pretty little water town typical of the region. Tongli gives visitors a good idea of what Suzhou must have been like in its heyday. Reminiscent of scenes from traditional Chinese paintings, it is complete with canals, arched stone bridges, cobbled lanes, and tile-roofed wooden houses. Visit a courtyard mansion to learn about the lavish life style of its residents. Then, learn about traditional Chinese wedding customs at a local folklore museum. Take an exciting ride on a gondola and experience the charm of Tongli's waterways. You will have free time to browse and buy some local specialties along Old Street, which is lined with Ming style homes and storefronts. In the late afternoon, you travel by motor coach to Shanghai and enjoy your evening at leisure      (B,L,D)     

 
 
Day 29 Fly home
Take maglev train to Pudong International Airport
Take maglev train to Pudong International Airport
After breakfast, you board the Maglev, the world's fastest magnetic levitation train, for your trip to Pudong International Airport. The Maglev travels at a speed of 287mph and covers the 20 mile distance in less than 8 minutes! Then you fly to home via Beijing and arrive in U.S. later today.

*Maglev ride is only available for San Franciscan departure due to return flight schedule.      (B,IM)     

 
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