Van Williams’ Visit to China - 2008

Region: Asia
Destination: China
Submitted by: Van Zandt Williams Jr
From: 06/04/2008
To: 07/01/2008

Princeton Journeys Trip to China, with Extension to Three Gorges and Beyond

June 4 – July 1, 2008. This trip was to have included Tibet, but that was closed due the unrest prior to the Olympics. The Princeton Journeys folks adjusted things excellently. Stephen (Buzzy) Teiser of the Religion Department (expert in Buddhism) was our Princeton guide, but we also had many excellent local guides. The trip extension to Chung Ching, Yangtze River, Three Gorges dam, and Mulin was arranged separately.

Jun 4 – 6: Travel to Beijing from EWR via Chicago and Shanghai. Arrive in new airport (built as part of Olympics prep) to a city filled with construction, but suffering from very poor air quality.

Jun 7: Tour area around Hotel on our own; lavish luncheon with friends; first gathering of Princeton Journeys group in the evening.

Jun 8: Tour of Forbidden City; Tiananmen Square; Mao’s Tomb; Beihai Park; Bell and Drum Towers; Tea Ceremony; and Peking Opera in the evening.

Jun 9: Travel to Great Wall in Mutianyu area (more accessible than Badaling area and less crowded); hike the Wall; visit Chinese holistic medicine center and enjoy dinner with Peking Duck.

Jun 10: Early departure to Temple of Heaven – a people’s park crowded with locals exercising and playing games. Excellent Chinese noodle lunch and Tea House visit, followed by trip to Olympic Village by bus before airport for flight to Dunhuang in the western part of China.

Jun 11: Visit Dunhuang Caves, an important way-station on the Silk Road. Well-preserved family Buddhist temples in a now very deserted area. Move on to Yulin Caves to east. Long day, but very educational.

Jun 12: Travel to Xian; tour city walls by bike; and then visit Da Ci’en Pagoda, a park filled with Buddhist objects and scenes from Buddhist history. Walking tour (and dinner) in town center is fascinating. Stay at Hyatt Regency just outside town.

Jun 13: Earthquake and pre-Olympic travel constraints reduce tourist traffic a lot. We are almost alone in our morning visit to the Terra Cotta Warrior museum. All constructed by a despotic Qin Dynasty Emperor (221-207 BCE) who was so despised that when he died the workers revolted and destroyed most of the statuary. Restoration project is immense. Afternoon visit to a Banpo Neolithic Village Museum (~5,000 years old).

Jun 14: Visit Shaanxi Museum for a quick tour of 1.1 million years of Chinese History, followed by flight to Cheng-Du and Crown Plaza Hotel there. We’re first foreigners to visit since earthquake and are, thus, temporary celebrities. Cheng-Du is relatively unaffected by earthquake but we are amazed by how modernized the city has become since earlier visit in 1995.

Jun 15: Trip to Lushan via Wannian Temple with 100 Buddhas carved into mountainside along trail. Lushan is site of Dado Temple with a 71’ Buddha carved into a cliff at the junction of the Dadu He and Min Rivers, both tributaries of the Yangtze. Back to Cheng-Du for the night. Evening excursion includes elegant Haagen Dazs restaurant in town center – an "in-place” for romantics as ice cream is a huge delicacy for the Chinese.

Jun 16: Uncrowded visit to Giant Panda Preserve in Cheng-Du with opportunity to play with pandas. Then to a brocade factory with hand looms. Then to airport for flight to Lijiang, but weather forces us to land instead in Kunming and spend a night at a (very) unscheduled hotel. Short night as we continue to Lijiang early in am.

Jun 17: Lijiang is our substitute for Tibet, and it is an area populated by the same (Naxi) people as Tibet. Town has a delightful "Old Town” with restaurants and shops. Feels quite Tibetian, which we’d visited in ’95, and it is well restored from their devastating quake in ’96. Tourist levels here are low, too.

Jun 18: Visit local Naxi Museum that has a great museum shop with reproductions and new art. Bus trip to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain area by bus and gondola to 12,375’ elevation. Back to town to see highlight of trip: an outdoor evening performance in a large amphitheater staged by Zhang Yimu, the same director who did the Beijing Olympics show. "Lijiang Experience” is a story of a young bride who’s leaving her family to be married to a lover from another town. The play has horses, swordplay, colorful costumes, great music, all set against a backdrop of snow-covered mountain peaks and swirling clouds. We’re all weeping at the end.

Jun 19: Another bus trip through rugged terrain through Shigu to Leaping Tiger Gorge, a very deep and narrow section of the Yangtze as it tumbles out of the Himalayas. Sedan chairs born by two sturdy porters are the luxury way down and up the 500’ gorge. Trip then takes us to Zhongdian, a Tibetan town also known as Shangri La. The big monastery there is a close replica of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Night is spent at Paradise Hotel at 11,000 feet.

Jun 20: We tour the above-mentioned monastery, which is now a small University for monks. Lots of Buddhist history here and Buzzy leads us through the halls and temples expertly. Afternoon tour of Rhinga Monastery was a disappointment, however. Very old and run down. Zhongdian is being rebuilt as a Chinese tourist site, and like Lhasa, much of the Tibetan structure and customs are being snuffed out. The area is beautiful, however.

June 21: Early departure to return to Shanghai. Arrive in pm and stay at excellent Okura Garden Hotel in old city. City is spectacular, as advertised, and it puts our infrastructure process to shame. The Pudong is amazing. The Princeton Journeys trip ends with a wonderful farewell dinner, and we prepare for the next part of the excursion.

Jun 22 - 25: Several of us depart in the am for Chung Ching at head of Three Gorges dam project. This was the city used by the allies as their base during WWII to bring in supplies "over the hump” from India. Much history all around, with a scant 31 million people in the larger area. We visit Stillwell Museum and the Flying Tiger Museum, as well as E’Ling Park at the top of the city. This includes a 100 foot long mural of the whole Three Gorges project. 1.3 million people are being displaced and the river level will rise 175 feet, wiping out all towns villages and neighborhoods along the way. At our arrival, project is largely done, and one is again astonished by the skill and the muscle of the government. Trip downriver to dam takes three days, with several side trips to see "new” areas as well as old. Boat (large barge, really) docks below dam on the 24th and we overnight there, taking a bus trip up to the dam, itself, which has good exhibits and nice photo ops. This part of the trip ends at midday, and we head off on our own to travel to Wuhan, where we are met by the brother of a Chinese Princeton PhD candidate who had been living with us for the previous two years. He and his girlfriend drive us to Mulin Village, a small commune in Guangzhou, near Qishi – a modest city of a million or so inhabitants. Mulin is their family home, and we met the parents, who speak no English, but are accompanied by the sister of our boarder who is there to help out, but also a young woman from Qishi, who is an English teacher and will serve as our translator.

Jun 26 – 28: A wonderful adventure – living in a rural Chinese home and touring their commune. Too much to describe here, but suffice to say, we ate well and learned a huge amount. No cars, no paved roads, no internet or cell phone (but there is state TV). All homes have pictures of Mao in their main rooms. Call me if you want to know more.

Jun 28: Drive back to Wuhan and the airport for trip back to Hangzhou. Tourist attraction here is nearby Westlake, a weekend retreat of Mao’s and now popular for Shanghai residents. Very touristy, but worth a visit. Many interesting tea plantations nearby. City also has a very uncharacteristic mansion (home of Hu Xue Yan) in the center of downtown. Recently restored by the government as a tourist attraction and quite remarkable.

Jun 29: Return to Shanghai, where we connect with classmate Bruce Robertson for a fine Italian dinner.

Jun 30 – Jul 1: Full days touring Shanghai, including the Pudong and a trip on the bullet MagLev train to airport and back just for fun (260 mph at peak speed). Visit Bruce’s Shanghai Racquet Club project, and enjoy cocktails with several members of the Princeton Club of Shanghai. Official trip to airport is uneventful as is trip back to US via Chicago to LGA and home to Princeton. Whew!!




















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