My wife Joan and I had thought about travelling to China for some time. But it seemed that somewhere else in Asia always beat it out as a favored destination. I was eager to see Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before they became hot tourist targets. Joan felt the same way about northern Thailand and Burma. And we both agreed, we had to satisfy our love of Indian food with trips to North and South India.
It began to seem, however, that almost everyone we knew was saying: "What, you've never been to China?" So, we blinked and decided to join the mainstream of travel buffs who rave about China.
I pulled out our giant desk-sized Atlas and it quickly became clear that planning an itinerary in China would be daunting because of the sheer size and complexity of the Chinese mainland. We wanted to do a trip where we would see some of the major sites but also interact with the Chinese people, and this would take some careful planning.
Many of the famous images of China were familiar to us through books, movies and TV, so I keyed my research on some of the less traveled destinations in China. I focused on the southwestern provinces close to the border with Tibet, and we decided to spend some time in Yunnan Province, in the foothills of the Himalayas, more remote and less developed than the major cities, and with a unique mix of tribal peoples with their own distinctive languages and culture.
We booked a non-stop flight to Beijing via Continental Airlines, and soon got our first taste of authentic China when we checked into a courtyard inn tucked away on a quiet lane in the heart of Old Beijing's hutongs. The spirit and soul of Old Beijing is still evident in the warren of narrow streets and alleyways in the few remaining hutong neighborhoods, which date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. The main transportation in the hutongs is by pedicabs and we found our first experience of interacting was not just instructive, but crucial here since places and streets take their names from foods (noodle, tea) and things (straw hat), in Mandarin of course, and we needed creative communication to manage.
We did Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall, and had the mandatory Peking Duck, then took the short flight to Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province, a city at the hub of the Silk Road and much easier to manage than bustling Beijing.
Xian is one of the oldest cities in China and it served as the imperial capital for eleven dynasties. The remarkably restored city wall dominates the center of the city, but the real attraction here is the terra cotta army unearthed in 1974 by farmers digging a well in a region permeated with underground springs and rivers.
What Chinese archaeologists discovered turned out to be one of the most famous archeology finds of modern times. An entire necropolis, dating to 246 B.C.E., of man-made soldiers, horses and chariots, all in battle formation, were arrayed to accompany the Qin emperor to the afterlife. The terra-cotta figures are life- sized, no two alike, some with swords, spears and crossbows, and number in the thousands.
We flew to Guilin, a popular draw for both foreign and domestic tourists because of the spectacular karst topography surrounding the area. Hundreds of limestone hills dot the countryside and the other-worldly scenery has inspired painters and poets for centuries.
We stayed at a resort in Yangshuo, a village outside of Guilin, less crowded, but with the most impressive karst scenery. We took a bamboo raft -- poled by an enthusiastic boatman -- along the Yulong River and spent an evening watching the grand Liu Sanjie light show on the river, a major production with hundreds of singers and dancers, over two hundred bamboo rafts, and a production crew of 600.
Joan and I climbed the 819 steps to get to the top of Moon Hill, so named because of the moon-shaped arch under its peak. The series of steep steps winds through thick bamboo brush till it reaches the top, where there are some impressive views of the karst peaks.
We met a delightful young Chinese couple, honeymooning at our resort, who offered to take us to see their village just outside of Yangshou. Entering ancient Fuli, a Ming dynasty town on the Li River, we saw elderly women crocheting slippers, men fashioning caskets from hewed logs and seamstresses working on turn of the century sewing machines in the open doorways along the narrow stone paved streets. The village has been producing hand-made scrolls and fans for generations and we could not resist a traditional fan with a black and white blossom design to add to our folk art collection.
Before leaving Fuli, we stopped at a tiny shop drying hand-made rice noodles on racks in the open air, and treated our young friends to a delicious lunch of dim sum, beer fried fish with noodles and a fiery vegetable hot pot.
On our last morning in Yangshou, we did some serious souvenir shopping on famous West Street, lined with cafes and shops selling silks, tribal crafts, textiles and beautiful travel chopsticks (which appealed to Joan's environmental consciousness).
Now we were ready to head for Yunnan , the most southwestern province of China, close to the borders of Tibet and Burma. Because of its historical remoteness, Yunnan is one of China's least developed provinces and therefore retains much of its original character. We were to find very few western tourists here though many Chinese seem to appreciate the diversity of the people and the pristine landscape of the area.
After our flight to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, we drove to Dali, home to the Bai people, whose exquisite architecture and Tibeto-Burman language are rivaled only by their distinctive dress and elaborate textiles.
We elected to stay in the Bai village of Xizhou, just outside Dali, where the Bai culture and traditions have survived the crush of modernization and the people live a lifestyle time-honored for centuries. Although 92% of Chinese are Han, the Bai are one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic.
The Bai have a glorious, long history in China. Though primarily Buddhist, their syncretic polytheism embraces Taoism, Confucianism and other religious beliefs.
We had arranged to stay at The Linden Centre in Xizhou, which occupies a traditional Bai courtyard former home of one of the Southern Silk Road's leading merchant families. The facility is a nationally protected heritage site that has been beautifully restored to its original dynastic elegance. The Centre is inspired by the living cultural traditions of the region; it provides a base for learning, sharing and exploring communities thousands of years old. Water ponds, lush bamboo, blooming flowers and antique statues are accented throughout the compound.
The days we spent in Xizhou allowed us to experience the "old China" that is elusive to most tourists. We had an unparalleled immersion into the Bai way of life, visiting local people in their homes, shopping in the outdoor morning markets, watching traditional fishing with the aid of trained cormorants in ErHai Lake, and, of course, eating the wonderful dishes (mostly vegetarian) of the Bai people. We were lucky to participate in a Buddhist Temple celebration honoring a local hero, and the Bai people there said it was their honor to have us join them!
We left the Lindens after a hearty breakfast for the three hour drive to Lijiang, the capital of the Naxi people, where we stayed in a charming boutique hotel in the heart of Old Town Lijiang. With its narrow and winding cobblestone streets, rushing waterways and Naxi-style homes, Old Lijiang has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Naxi are descendants from Tibetan nomads and practice a shamanistic religion known as Dongba. Naxi society is matriarchal --- women do most of the work and own most of the businesses.
The magnificent Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range frames Lijiang and is famous for its thirteen peaks resembling jade pillars. We took a cable car to Spruce Meadow (10,500 feet) and hiked through groves of spruce and pine trees where young Naxi men and women come to pray for eternal love.
Early one morning we walked to Jade Spring Park (commonly called Black Dragon Pool) where the local Naxi come to sit or stroll, exercise or play cards and we stopped to watch an elderly group of musicians "jamming" on antique Naxi instruments. The park is a lovely, tranquil idyll just fifteen minutes from Old Lijiang and the view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from the park is beautiful.
Our final stop was Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan and fastest growing city, with a population of more than 23 million. We stayed in the former French Concession, and put away our chopsticks as we found excellent French and Italian restaurants that compare with the best in the West. Shanghai has a fascinating mix of East and West, with historic Shikumen houses mingling with Art Deco, Parisian and Tudor styles. The French Concession is probably the most graceful part of the city, with colonial architecture and tree-lined streets with cafes and boutiques.
The Shanghai Art Museum is a must. The monumental interior architecture and surrounding masterpieces of Chinese art provide a beautiful way to take an easy stroll through Chinese history. The collection of more than 120,000 pieces contains treasures of bronze, ceramics, paintings and calligraphy.
Shanghai has had a Jewish presence that dates back centuries, and which accelerated dramatically during the first decades of the twentieth century as refugees from the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Jews fleeing Nazi-dominated Europe arrived in the 1930s and 1940s. What many called the Pearl of the Orient was an "open city" requiring no entry visa or special documents and so was one of the only safe -havens for Jews during the Holocaust.
We visited the Ohel Rachel Synagogue and Museum and walked the streets of the old Jewish Quarter, where tens of thousands of Jews lived in safety during this period.
Outside of Shanghai are a series of centuries-old water villages preserved almost in their original state. Stone bridges span narrow canals as traditional sampans paddle by, presenting a way of life seemingly long past.
On our last morning we stumbled upon a lovely park hidden just minutes from our hotel. We saw a way of ordinary life amid the freneticism of Shanghai -- one old China hand we knew called it "New York on steroids" -- with young mothers pushing baby carriages, locals doing tai chi, playing mah jongg and actually practicing ballroom dancing. We joined in, the sophisticated Shanghainese unperturbed by our presence, and actually learned a few new steps to take back with us.
To be sure, an encounter with China is rich, diverse and bold. The sights, sounds, and enormous crowds can be overwhelming. To experience some of the subtleties of Chinese culture we found it worthwhile to get off the beaten path and to search out the everyday life of the diverse peoples who live in this vast country. We have found that our strongest memories of this incredible trip are of the people we met and the spontaneous hospitality we encountered throughout our travels.
Bob Mann, who lives in Greenwich, is a retired international lawyer who has traveled extensively. He writes travel articles and Op-ed pieces for various newspapers.