Global Family Travels dedicates this blog post to our wonderful tour Chinese tour guides, who became our extended family while were traveling in China. We were very fortunate on this tour to have a fabulous primary guide, David Qi, who accompanied us to each destination and shared his in-depth knowledge of China’s history, and we also had three different local guides in Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu who provided detailed information about their respective cities and the sights we visited. From both our guides and from the interaction we had with many of the locals in each city, the food we ate, the sights we saw, we all learned a tremendous amount about this amazingly rich and historical country. Please enjoy our family's China travel experiences on this blog page!
Day 1 in Beijing
We enjoyed our first morning in Beijing by beginning with a stop at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, or Tiananmen Square (the “soul of China” some call it), which has an assortment of communist-style buildings and monuments, including Chairman Mao’s memorial. Next, we did a walking tour of the 78 acre Forbidden City, home to Chinese Emperors since it was built in 1421. It is said to be the world largest existing palace complex with 999.5 rooms. While walking in the Imperial palace, you can retrace 500 years of Chinese history from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The palace is adorned with dragon and phoenix motifs, denoting the emperor and empress, respectfully. There were very few westerners visiting the Forbidden City today and many of the Chinese people carried beautiful fans or umbrellas to stay cool.
The highlight of our day was lunch at the Liu family’s house, where we learned to make our own dumplings! Mr. Liu’s wife taught us the art of dumpling making and after lunch, Mr. Liu showed us the art of calligraphy and paper art (double happiness symbol). Interestingly, Mr. Liu is a Kung Fu master and professional Kung Fu coach. His family has lived in their home for over five generations (120 plus years). The family pets included coi fish, a few birds and a very large pet cricket.
In the afternoon, we explored by rickshaw Beijing’s hutongs, traditional alleyways and courtyard homes which once covered the city. These ancient, pedestrian corridors offer visitors some colorful insight into how the majority of Beijing citizens once lived. Many grandparents were tending to little ones in these alleys and there were several games of mahjong taking place. We ended our day with a visit to the 13th century Drum Tower, where you can get a view of Beijing. The Drum tower was used once to tell the people of Beijing the time of day by the number of drums being beaten.
Day 2 – Our visit to the Temple of Heaven Park and the Great Wall of China
We started our active day by getting up early and joined the locals in the Temple of Heaven Park. In the park, where they were participating in various activities, such as Taiji, ribbon dance, sword dance, Chinese hacky-sack and water calligraphy. The Temple of Heaven was the prayer palace for good weather and bountiful harvests of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Next, we drove to the Mutianyu part of the Great Wall, which was built and restored in the early Ming Dynasty (1368 –1644) on the remnants of a wall originally built in the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577). After taking a gondola ride up to the wall, we hiked this beautiful section of the Wall and and enjoyed a fun toboggan ride down to the bottom!
Days 3 & 4 – Xi'an and the Terracota Warriors
After arriving in Xi’an, once the starting point of the Silk Road, we explored the Muslim Quarter, a colorful area filled with street vendors selling local food and dried fruit. In the evening, we enjoyed a shadow puppet show in a local courtyard.
The next morning, we visited the world famous Terracotta Warriors, a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The figures are the size of actual humans with very life-like features. They are a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC, whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The warriors were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Shaanxi province.
In the afternoon, we returned to the city and visited the City Wall, one of the oldest and best preserved City Walls in China, which we had fun exploring by bikes on the wall.
Day 5 - Travel to Chengdu
In the morning we flew from Xi’an to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in southern China. We took a one hour flight from Beijing to Xi'an and upon arrival, we were greeted by our local tour guide, Gary and bus driver, Mr. Liu would will be accompanying us in Sichuan province for the next week. We traveled in a comfortable bus to Ya’an, a small village 2 hours south of the Chengdu. The contrast of leaving the city was interesting, as at first there were many fancy cars traveling the highway and light manufacturing on the outskirts of Chengdu, and then the further south we traveled we began to see many agricultural fields, filled with corn, squash, pole beans and rice paddies. In each small town we drove through, there were tiny industrial stalls with all kinds of wares.
Day 6 - Working with Pandas
Today we traveled to the Bifengxia Panda Reserve, where we volunteered at the Bifengxia Panda Center where 85 of these beautiful creatures are housed. We were given a brief orientation and we each doned a jumpsuit and were paired by family with a volunteer manager who assigned us our tasks for the day. We spent a good part of the morning cleaning the enclosures, including left over bamboo shoots and other leftovers. We fed the pandas multiple times during the day, since on average, they eat 40-50 kilograms of bamboo a day. At the center, they get extra treats, including bamboo shoots, carrots, and a bread consisting of ground wheat and bamboo with honey mixed in.
Day 7 & 8 - Onward to Dafo, the Biggest Buddha!
Day 7 was another travel day to Leshan -- “Happy Mountain” city, south of Chengdu, where the big Buddha is located which we will visit tomorrow. We made some friends with some of the vendors on the street selling fruit and garland necklaces of jasmine flowers. One of our unplanned stops was the Leshan ebony museum, which displayed intricately carved pieces of ebony depicting scenes from four different dynasties, local deities, and relics from different eras. Ebony is basically petrified wood which has many healing properties to the Chinese. We made a few purchases of ebony items, including some chop sticks and Buddha and Quan Yin pendants.
This morning, on day 8 of our trip, we visited Dafo, Leshan’s Giant Buddha, built in the Tang Dynasty. Standing at 230 feet, the statue is carved into the red sandstone hill overlooking the confluence of three rivers. In 713, a local Buddhist monk decided to build Dafo to help bless and calm the turbulent waters of the rivers. There is a local saying: "The mountain is a Buddha and the Buddha is a mountain". This is partially because the mountain range in which the Leshan Giant Buddha is located is thought to be shaped like a slumbering Buddha when seen from the river, with the Leshan Giant Buddha as its heart.
We first hiked up the hill and visited the monastery, which is near the top of the Big Buddha’s head, before descending stairs next to the Buddha. At the monastery, we gave offerings of candles and incenses, and witnessed some monks performing a ceremony. There were several statues of Buddha, and Quan Yin, the Goddess of compassion, which many Chinese pray to if they want children.
We descended stairs spanning the length of the 230 foot Buddha. His foot alone could hold about 75 people on it! After leaving the Buddha, we came to the end of the path, where there was a beautiful bridge, apparently built from the left over carving pieces from the Big Buddha.
In the late afternoon, we drove up a scenic mountain road to the beautiful Yibin Bamboo forest and found our hotel. After dinner, we explored the little mountain town and did some shopping. In the evening, this little town came to life with people singing in multiple Karoke bars on the small lake.
Day 9 – Exploring the Bamboo Sea
Today we explored the “Bamboo Sea”, a huge bamboo forest about 47 square miles just south of Yibin. We started our day by rowing on a long wooden raft on one of the park’s lakes and said hello to many of our new Chinese friends in other rafts. Later, we hiked down to a beautiful waterfall and made a stop at a pagoda, which we climbed to the top of and took in the amazing view of the bamboo forest. Unfortunately, it was a bit hazy (or smog?), so the photos from the top of the pagoda did not turn out so well.
The local economy thrives off of bamboo products, with artisans carving Buddhas out of bamboo, which are sold next to other bamboo made items, including tea cups, hats, toys and chop sticks. Bamboo is also used in the cuisine this region and they make several dishes with pickled and stir-fried bamboo, served with a variety of mushrooms that grown at the base of the bamboo trees. Some of the mushrooms looked like nets and were sold in bulk that you could pick out of big bags in the commercial street stalls.
A side note: Many of the Chinese we encountered wanted photos with us, as most likely they don’t see too many Westerners in this region. (They especially liked the blonde ones in our group!)
Day 10 – Drive to Chengdu and Zigong Dinosaur Museum
On our drive back to Chengdu, we made a stop at the Zigong Dinosaur Museum, home to Asia’s first museum dedicated entirely dinosaurs. Built on top of the world’s largest concentration of dinosaur fossils, this fabulous collection includes reassembled skeletons and half-buried dinosaur bones discovered in 1972.
In the evening, we experienced the Chinese dramatic art of “face- changing” at a local opera house. The 90-minute fast-pace show had skilled performers wearing vividly colored masks which they change within a fraction of a second. Another interesting act was the hand-puppet show, whereby hand shadows were used to form animals.
Day 11 - A Relaxing last day in Chengdu
Today was a very relaxing today, starting with a morning walk through People’s park in Chengdu. Given that Chengdu is famous for its tea houses, we did what the locals do, namely spent time drinking tea and playing Mahjong. We first watched a group of elderly Chinese play in the tea house play and then Gary taught us how to play and we caught on rather quickly. Now, we just need to learn the Chinese characters/numbers!
Given that today was out last day, we enjoyed a farewell lunch at a local famous hotpot restaurant. Our guide, Gary, helped show us how to put the meats and vegetables in the two different boiling pots, one of which had a spicy broth and the other had a milder broth to cook the food in. It was delicious!
After lunch, we visited Wuhou Temple which honors several ministers of war from the Three Kingdom period. The Three Kingdoms period consists of three kingdoms – Wei, Shu and Wu and as a single dynasty originated in 220 AD. It is considered to be a special historical period full of power struggles and sophisticated military strategies. The temple grounds had a beautiful Bonsai garden, hosting several big era pots of full of bonsais.
Before heading to the airport to begin our long journey home, we all enjoyed a relaxing ancient Chinese massage and an early evening stroll and some shopping on Jinli street, a colorful street market that was made famous during as a commercial area during the Shu Kingdom (221-263).
We said our final farewell to our Gary, our local guide, and Mr. Liu and had one last photo taken together.