The Ming dynasty portion of the Great Wall, measures 5,500 miles in length, from China’s East coast to the Gobi desert in the West. © Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock
Originally published in January/February 2016
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Ancient defenses, sweeping views
Pit 1, the largest of the four excavation pits, holds more than 6,000 terra cotta warrior sculptures. © Vanessa Day/AAA Colorado
In and around the incomprehensibly huge city of Beijing are the remnants of fortifications that today offer unique vistas and insights.
By Vanessa Day
One step leads to another through a great stone archway, and I find myself standing on 2,000-year-old bricks. Ahead of me is a river of stone, flowing and weaving up and over mountainous terrain, its scale incomprehensible. It is mid-spring, but the sun is bright and heating my path, making the walk much more difficult. Yet I continue my hike, saying a silent prayer when the grade turns sharply upward.
The Great Wall of China has not been a complete mystery to me. Long before this trip, I had learned about its history, seen pictures of it, and heard stories from others who had visited. But it’s one thing to look at photographs of something, and quite another to stand in its midst. The Great Wall makes you feel smaller than you expect.
The same is true of Beijing, the world’s third largest city, where more than 21 million reside on more than 6,000 square miles, with nearly 5 million registered automobiles. By comparison, it all makes Denver seem so very intimate.
Our first stop after arriving in Beijing on a flight from Los Angeles is Tiananmen Square, where a line at least a mile long waits to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao Zedong, China’s revolutionary leader. This is the square where in a 1989 protest for democracy a Chinese student famously stood in front of Chinese tanks, impeding their progress. To the north is the Forbidden City, which served as the Chinese imperial palace for nearly 500 years and now houses the Palace Museum—along with 980 buildings—and covers 180 acres. The White House covers only 1/10th of the area (18 acres).
Our guide leads us through the entrance of the Forbidden City, and I notice cameras and smartphones turning quickly in our direction. We had become the main attraction, as people eagerly ask to take selfies with us.
We make our way inside the Forbidden City, and every time we walk through the next gateway, I think we’ve reached our final destination, the residence of the Emperor and his family. Not so. The guide tells us, “We’re still in the Outer Court.” After passing through at least four walls and expansive courtyards, each holding structures with decades of significance that would take far too long to explain, we reach the Inner Court and I am transported back to Imperial China.
Colorful motifs of dragons and phoenixes (representing emperors and empresses) can be seen throughout the palace. The imperial garden is my favorite, with meticulously shaped trees, rockery, flowerbeds and sculptures.
It is the following day that we head north to the Great Wall. Most of the wall was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to prevent Mongolian raiders from entering China. We visit the Mutianyu section of the wall, known for beautiful scenery and fewer crowds. For adventure, ride the alpine slide-style ride down from the high mountains. I did, and highly recommend it to others.
Saved from hurried demolition
Our last day in Beijing brings us to the city’s hutong, a traditional neighborhood filled with narrow alleyways and roads, each named for the profession of those who lived on that street. It is the last of its kind in the city, as the other old neighborhoods fell victim to hurried redevelopment.
We climb aboard rickshaws and make our way to the home of Yanzhen Zhang, an aging artist whose family has lived and worked there for decades. He tells us about the old days, his family, and life in a hutong. While the meeting is brief, I feel honored that he has opened his home and offered a glimpse of a past that was almost lost.
Our tour takes us from the bustling streets of Beijing to the just-as-hurried roads of Xi’an, one of the oldest cities in China and once an Ancient Capital. We arrive by train in the early evening and get caught in slow-moving rush hour, allowing us a better view of the city. As the sun drops below the horizon, we have the privilege of passing through the city wall, which is lit up like homes on Christmas, bathing the streets in a festive splash of color.
In the morning, we drive to see the Terracotta Army, first stopping at a manufacturer where thousands of replicas of all sizes are created every day. The rows of miniatures—and not-so-miniature figures—fill the rooms, waiting to be purchased by visitors hoping to bring a piece of China home with them.
The unearthed warriors depict the armies of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who was buried along with these sculptures. Emperor Huang was a brutal emperor, arresting and killing thousands of Chinese men and women in fear of being assassinated. Not only did he feel that he needed to be protected in life, but in the afterlife as well. The warriors sit in four main excavation pits located east of the emperor’s burial mound. Pit one is the largest site, and contains the main army of some 6,000 figures.
We return to the city to spend some time atop the Xi’an city wall, one of the best preserved city defenses. Much wider and more pedestrian friendly than the Great Wall, Xi’an’s city wall is more like an elevated road circling a portion of the city. Lined by red hanging lanterns and dotted every few meters by towers, the wall offers us an escape from the crowded streets below and a fantastic view of the city. Time is not on our side, but if it had been, I would have walked more of the wall—or rented a bicycle and taken a ride around the whole city.
We end our visit with a traditional dumpling dinner. Xi’an is considered the home of the popular meal item, as the people here have taken time to create and refine the best dumplings in the country. Many of the dumplings are shaped for the filling inside—duck, fish, shrimp—while others are simple half circles stuffed with deliciously seasoned beef or vegetables. My belly full of the local delicacies, and memories of the day still fresh in my mind, my emotions are bittersweet. It is difficult to describe, but Xi’an’s mixture of contemporary and historical creates a mesmerizing vibe that stays with you. While I am excited to see the next city, it is hard to leave a place such as this.
Tourists explore the Temple in Imperial Garden at the Forbidden City, Beijing, China. © Tim Klein/Gallery Stock
A quick flight brings us to the final stop on our trip: Shanghai. This thriving metropolis is not only the largest city in China by population, but also in the world, with more than 24 million people. From what I can tell, the architecture of the buildings is very impressive. The Pudong district features a wide variety of record-holding modern skyscrapers, and the best place to view them is from the Bund.
Our first evening is spent strolling along the crowded waterfront, gazing at the incredible light show going on across the Huangpu River. During the day, the buildings stand separate, immaculate all on their own; but at night, they work together to create a visually stimulating digital art display. Even the boats along the river act as floating billboards. Throngs of people flock here to see the skyline light up, creating the perfect background for a selfie.
In the morning, I witness a very different crowd. It’s May Day (May 1), a national holiday in China, and we visit the Jade Buddha Temple to learn about the country’s spiritual traditions. The temple is just as immaculate as some of the churches I have seen in Europe, with ornate decorations, gold embellishments and hundreds of Buddha statues, each one slightly different and holding its own meaning.
What was really special was seeing the people’s respect for the Buddha and their faith displayed proudly. The smell of incense permeates my senses, and flecks of ash fall all over my hair, shoulders and face. Dozens of people are lighting bouquets of incense sticks in the courtyard of the temple, holding the smoking stalks to their foreheads and bowing in prayer.
Men and women from all walks of life enter the temple, making time for their prayers and then leaving to get on with their daily routines. The temple is where they ask for good fortune, happiness and long life. It feels special watching this ritual, and yet, at the same time, like an intrusion, yet no one seems bothered by our group. In fact, they seem accustomed to it.
I pick up a small jade Buddha from the gift shop, a physical piece of the country that will come home with me. As I pass back through the courtyard, I stop once more in front of the “enlightened one” and glance up at the stunning piece of art, knowing so much went into its creation. I may never see all of China, unravel its mysteries and understand all its traditions, and that’s a good thing. It’s a place of grandeur that still remains hidden, and it is this fact that has left me in awe of the country. Before I turn to leave, I bow, ever so slightly, in gratitude.
Vanessa Day is a widely published travel writer and the travel marketing manager at AAA Colorado.
Beauty from ashes
By Tom Hess
Living Americans from several generations hold vastly different views of Vietnam and Cambodia. Those old enough to remember TV’s saturation coverage of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, will never forget the indelible images of bloodshed and the shock of domestic protests. Much younger Americans see on their mobile travel apps some of the most luxuriant land on the planet. Each generation can help the other see this land of beauty, tragedy and ancient wisdom literature with new eyes.
River cruises from providers (and AAA Colorado travel partners) such as AmaWaterways, Uniworld and Viking run from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The slow pace of river cruising gives generations traveling together the time and space to share their impressions of a land so distant, yet so closely tied to American history.
Among the surprises to Americans unfamiliar with regional history: The Temple of Literature, or Van Mieu, in Hanoi, a nearly 1,000-year-old compound modeled on the temple at Confucius’s hometown in China. The compound includes five manicured courtyards, surrounded by the Lake of Literature, and the Imperial Academy—Vietnam’s first university, founded in 1076. It is tradition for students to touch giant stone turtles for luck, so don’t be surprised to find this place packed with graduates in traditional dress. Go with a tour guide since few signs are in English.
In Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where several cruise lines start or end their trips, every American of every age should visit the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels, according to a 25-year-old American, Jared Bogrett, who visited the sites.
“People were crying,” Bogrett said, “because it is an experience like the Holocaust Museum (in Washington, D.C.). There were different political views of the war within the group, but no accusations, not among the Americans, and not from the Vietnamese. The people of Southeast Asia are some of the nicest people in the world.”
By Blaine Harrington III
If you ask most people who’ve traveled through Asia if they’ve been to Thailand, they’ll say “yes, I’ve been to Bangkok.” And while Bangkok itself is certainly worth a visit, Thailand is so much more than that. On my last visit there, I visited Chiang Mai, in the north country’s foothills.
Chiang Mai is the gateway to the Golden Triangle, bordering Thailand, Burma and Laos. I arose early my first morning to watch hundreds of Buddhist monks walking single file along the roads carrying their alms bowls. As they passed, local Buddhists filled the bowls with rice and vegetables.
Some 60 miles south in Lampang is the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. It is Thailand’s only government-owned elephant camp. While there, I rode in a procession of elephants through the countryside and watched elephants paint drawings.
In the Mae Rim District, to the north of Chiang Mai, live members of the Hmong tribe, an ethnic group from southern China and Laos who migrated south centuries ago. I was welcomed into a 90-year-old woman’s simple home and watched her still nimble fingers sew silk garments.
Days later, back in the hustle and bustle of the capital city of Bangkok, I traveled to several of the most famous wats (temples) by local river boat taxis, which ply the Chao Phraya River. On one side of the river sits Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). By climbing a series of steps to the top, you’re greeted with a panoramic view of the river and the Grand Palace on the opposite shore. Next to the palace is the most famous of the wats, Wat Pho. Inside the wat is the massive (50 feet high and a half a football field long) Reclining Buddha.
To end my trip, I flew south to the island of Koh Samui. While there, I took a day-long boat trip to Angthong National Marine Park, a series of 42 limestone islands. I climbed to the top of peaks on several of them to take in majestic views and then snorkeled in clear azure waters, then retreated to the spa at the Melati Beach Resort for a two-hour Thai massage, manicure and pedicure.
Agrarian and sacred
By Blaine Harrington III
Still an economic backwater in Southeast Asia, after years of military rule, the old city of Rangoon (aka Yangon) in Burma (aka Myanmar) is not yet modernized, and life in the countryside remains agrarian. The first and most important place to visit there is the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Burma and one of the most beautiful pagodas in the world—one of my personal “Seven Wonders.”
Elsewhere in Burma, in Amarapura, is the three-quarter mile long U Bein Bridge, the longest teakwood bridge in the world. At sunset, it is packed with a steady stream of people, some pushing bicycles, making their way home.
On the vast plain at Bagan remain 2,000 temples in a protected, uninhabited archaeological zone, where I watched hot air balloons pass silently overhead.
At Inle Lake in Shan State, villages stand on stilts and vegetable gardens float on the water. This is the only place in the world that fishermen propel their boats by leg rowing. With an oar attached to one leg, they are able to keep their hands free to throw down their conical nets quickly to capture fish.
By Larry Olmsted
Despite a diet based largely on rice, noodles and seafood, the Japanese love fat. Famously coveted Kobe beef, like all other premium Japanese wagyu, is incredibly marbled, as white as red, the fattier the better. But in a country synonymous with sushi and sashimi, no food is more prized for its natural insulation than tuna, with “fatty tuna” commanding the highest prices.
There is no better place to see this tuna obsession – and the Japanese passion for nearly every sea creature – than Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s the world’s largest seafood emporium, more neighborhood than market, a cluster of huge warehouses surrounded by a support industry of restaurant supply stores, knife vendors and lots of tiny counter service only mom and pop sushi restaurants. Freshness is key in seafood, and it’s hard to get fresher than a sushi bar that buys next door at the world’s most amazing market.
The catch is you’ll have to eat this sushi for breakfast, which while unusual, is a perfectly delicious concept. That’s because you can only visit and tour Tsukiji in the early morning: the tuna auction, the most impressive part of a visit, is only open from 5–6:15 a.m. Each whole fish, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, is marked with characters in chalk explaining its species, weight, where and when it was caught, and so on. Buyers walk around frantically checking the eyes, color, and texture of scales, before frenzied bidding begins, a whirlwind of paddles and shouting – you don’t need to know Japanese to appreciate the importance of these tuna. After the sale, most tourists go their own way, with a stroll around the hundreds of stalls overflowing with aquatic bounty, thousands of species of shellfish, fin fish, jellyfish, squid and so on, then head out for breakfast. But for the tuna, the auction is just the start.
I followed a newly bought tuna as it was loaded into a wheelbarrow and rolled to one of the market stands. Here, in a small area lined with magnetic strips of knives, dozens, from a few inches to samurai sword models, two cutters expertly broke the tuna down, cut by cut, knife by knife, like surgeons, into progressively smaller, regular and creamy pink pieces. Buyers for sushi restaurants lined up for first crack at the rich slabs, now the size of the piece the chef pulls from the glass case to cut into your nigiri or sashimi. Watching the 300 pound fish, nearly six feet long, go from its whole state to prized restaurant portions took about an hour, and it was artistry in motion, a special memory. It also made me hungry, but when you walk out of Tsukiji, there is a chance to eat some of the best sushi on earth at every turn – maybe even that very tuna.