Day by Day Itinerary

Explore China when you cruise the Yangtze River, which has been China’s main thoroughfare for commerce and culture for centuries. Before your Chinese River Cruise begins, you’ll stay in Beijing and tour the magnificent Forbidden City, imperial palaces, and the incredible Great Wall. Then, travel to the metropolis of Shanghai for a glimpse of modern life, as well as a look at artifacts from ancient dynasties.

You’ll cruise through the Yangtze River Valley, home to misty mountains, breathtaking gorges, canyons, bamboo groves, whirlpools, and lagoons. Along the Yangtze River’s narrow, cliff-bound passages lie some of China’s greatest cultural treasures—ancient tombs, shrines, and walls from before the time of Christ.

After your Yangtze River cruise, you’ll discover China’s World War II history in Chongqing, marvel at Xian’s Terra Cotta Army, and cruise Guilin’s beautiful Li River.

Beijing Hong Kong Expand All
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    Embark on your transpacific flight from your choice of several U.S. gateway cities.

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    Arrive in Beijing this afternoon or evening. A Grand Circle representative will meet you at the airport. You'll also meet your Program Director today, as well as fellow travelers, including those who took the pre-trip extension to Tokyo, Japan.

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    Join us after breakfast for an opportunity to get to know your Program Director and fellow travelers at an orientation briefing. Your Program Director will go over the details of your upcoming trip and answer any questions you may have. You'll also hear about and have the opportunity to purchase optional tours.

    Next, embark on a half-day tour of the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You'll begin at the Temple of Heaven, which was built in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty to offer sacrifices to heaven and for a successful harvest.

    A masterpiece of architecture and landscape design, the Temple of Heaven comprises a number of buildings, gardens, and pathways whose organization symbolize the relationship between Earth and Heaven. The design layout instituted here profoundly influenced Chinese architecture and planning for centuries. Among the stellar structures is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, which has triple eaves, gorgeous glazed tiles, and dramatically carved marble balustrades. Built without nails, cement, or steel rods, the entire structure is fixed by wooden mortise and wooden brackets with the support of twelve pillars. As you explore the temple grounds, you might find locals practicing tai chi, calligraphy, or playing music.

    Enjoy lunch at a local restaurant before you continue on to tour the Summer Palace, the former summer retreat for the imperial family during the late Qing Dynasty and now China’s largest and best-preserved royal garden. It has an 800-year history, beginning with the creation here of the Golden Hill Palace during the Jin Dynasty. Much later, in 1750, the Garden of Clear Ripples was built on this site. The garden has been restored twice since then, after being damaged by foreign military forces.

    This twelve-square-mile complex includes many pavilions, temples, palaces, and halls in a landscape of hills amidst open water. You might find the Long Gallery an interesting feature, as it measures more than 2,300 feet long and offers paintings depicting Chinese legend, history, and natural settings.

    Your day is complete with a Welcome Dinner featuring traditional Chinese cuisine at the hotel this evening.

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    Today, enjoy an introduction to Beijing during an included sightseeing tour. You'll walk around Tiananmen Square, which has been the setting for mass Red Guard rallies through the years and, in 1989, saw huge pro-democracy demonstrations.

    The city of Beijing is built around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beijing is not only the political and administrative center of China, it is also the single greatest repository of monuments and treasures from the Imperial era. Beijing was not laid out until the rule of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In traditional Chinese thought, the world was conceived of as square. A city, especially a capital, was supposed to be square, a geometric reflection of the cosmic order.

    You'll enter the Forbidden City, so named because it was off limits to visitors for 500 years. Completed in 1420, this was the center of Imperial palaces for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The last dynasty fell in 1911, though the last Qing emperor lived here until 1925 when it became a museum. The city contains 800 ceremonial buildings, containing 9,999 rooms, and a courtyard that can hold 100,000 people. Marvel at its acres of grandeur—elegant palaces, pavilions, courtyards, and gardens—all walled in as a rectangular island within a moat wide enough for naval engagements.

    You'll enjoy lunch at a restaurant outside the Forbidden City. Then join us for a tour of Beijing's Hidden Lanes. In the past, several thousand lanes, alleys, and quadrangles formed residential areas for ordinary people living in the capital. The word hutong refers to the narrow lanes created by the walled residential compounds built one on top of the other in these cramped districts. Surrounding the Forbidden City, many hutongs were built during the Yuan (1206-1341), Ming (1368-1628), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. In the prime of these dynasties, the emperors, in order to establish their absolute power, planned the city and arranged the residential areas.

    About half the population of Beijing lives in hutongs, which comprise one-third of the sprawling city's total area. The high walls surround the traditional siheyuan quadrangle, made up of four, single-story buildings fronting a courtyard. Hutongs are named for the groups who live within, for instance, the Bowstring Makers' Lane, or if populated by a single family, their surname. Unfortunately, encroaching urban development now threatens hutongs.

    You'll take a rickshaw and then walk through Beijing's ancient narrow hutongs, seeing the old houses and learning about the daily life of ordinary Beijing citizens. Then, we split up into smaller groups to visit with local families and enjoy a tea break.

    Your evening is at leisure. Or, join us for an evening at the theater for traditional performances of Beijing opera. This ancient theatrical art is not like the Western opera, full of arias and centered around singing. It's a beautiful and delicate blend of grand opera, ballet, song, drama, and comedy that spans the entire history of China, its folklore, mythology, literature, and culture. The cost of this optional tour includes dinner.

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    Begin today's full-day tour with a visit to a jade workshop, where you can peruse pieces made by local artisans. Then, continue your tour with a ride through the suburbs to the Jun Du Hills, arriving at the fabled Great Wall of China. Construction of the Great Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, began during the Warring States Period (403-221 BC) with sections built in scattered areas. It was only following China's unification under the first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (221-206 BC) that some 300,000 men were put to work connecting the segments into one rampart of brick, stone, and earth nearly 4,000 miles long. Intended to shield the nation from invaders, the Great Wall is now, ironically, one of China's leading tourist attractions.


    Originally built in sections to protect various provinces from northern tribes, the wall's construction ranges from brick-and-mortar to earthen ramparts. In the 1950s, restoration was begun on several significant portions of the wall—including one of the most impressive, at the Jun Du Hills, where construction started in 1345. As you walk along its ramparts, undulating up and down steep hills and graced with massive lookout towers, imagine the scenes of battle, ceremony, commerce, and labor that have taken place along its serpentine path to the sea.

    Each of the wall's great stone towers could garrison hundreds of soldiers. The towers are built at a distance of two bowshots apart—meaning that the entire wall could be defended by the archers within it. You may notice that the wall snakes along a winding path—this is because Chinese mythology maintains that demons and evil spirits can only travel in a straight line, and the undulating wall effectively keeps them out.

    After lunch at a local restaurant, your tour continues in the peaceful valley that the Ming emperors chose as their burial ground. Pass through a great marble gateway more than four centuries old, and onto Sacred Way, the Avenue of the Animals, lined with massive stone statues of kneeling and standing elephants, lions, camels, and fanciful beasts.

    Enjoy an included dinner at a local restaurant tonight.

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     Wushi School of Martial Arts, Beijing, China

    This morning, admire the grace and skill of the students at a local kung fu school, and perhaps even get a lesson from its young pupils. Then visit a cloisonne (enamelware) factory to learn about this ancient craft. Artisans craft brilliantly colored pieces with often complex patterns, using strips of metal and traditional painting techniques, and you can observe the skills involved in creating this decorative art form. Continue on to a local restaurant for an included lunch.

    This afternoon, you transfer to the airport for your flight to Shanghai. On arrival in Shanghai in the early evening, you are met and transferred to your hotel. Dinner tonight is on your own.

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    Enjoy a leisurely breakfast before starting today's full-day tour. Begin with a stop to see the lavishly decorated Jade Buddha Temple, a relatively new but elegant structure that has stood for less than 100 years.

    The Buddha statue is older than the current temple, and is carved of solid white jade, encrusted with jewels. You'll then make a stop at a nearby carpet factory.

    After a traditional Mongolian barbecue lunch, you travel along the famous Bund, a five-block-long riverfront promenade containing many of Shanghai's banks and trading houses. Here, every afternoon finds street performers and vendors sharing the boulevard with pedestrians. In the mornings, locals gather to practice the slow, deliberate movements of tai chi; and the evening marks the emergence of well-dressed courting couples.

    Enjoy this evening at leisure in Shanghai.

    Or, discover the beauty of Shanghai by Night during an optional tour. Your tour begins with an included dinner and continues with a cruise on the Huangpu River, known as the "Mother River" of Shanghai. As you cruise, glimpse vestiges of old and new Shanghai in the architecture along its banks, all resplendent with lights.

    You'll disembark to explore Shanghai's vibrant new Pudong district, and enjoy a panoramic drive through the city before returning to your hotel.

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    You have a full day to follow your own interests in Shanghai.

    Or, join us on an optional full-day tour to 500-year-old Suzhou in China’s fabled Silk Region. This is the city of silk, gardens, and canals that inspired Marco Polo. Travel by train (just over 40 minutes), arriving in mid-morning.

    Suzhou means “Plentiful Water,” and its Grand Canal is crowded with strings of barges laden with fruits, vegetables, construction materials, and coal. The Grand Canal, second only to the Great Wall as a Chinese engineering feat, was begun 2,400 years ago. Graceful bridges cross over the water, and tile-roofed whitewashed houses sit close to shore. On arrival, you’ll disembark the train and take a short ride to the waterfront. From here, you’ll cruise the canal to the Water Gate, which connects Suzhou to the southern end of the canal and was used as a “toll gate” for the canal’s commercial traffic. Then visit the Wangshi (Master of the Fishing Net) Garden, built in 1140 and boasting a peony-filled courtyard that has been reproduced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

    After lunch at a local restaurant, visit a silk factory to see how silk is made from mulberry-munching silkworms to thread to fine cloth. Marco Polo reported that so much silk was produced in Suzhou that every citizen was clothed in it. At one time, Suzhou guarded the secrets of silk making so closely that smuggling silkworms out of the city was punishable by death. Return to Shanghai by motorcoach (about a two-hour drive) by dinnertime.

    Relax this evening and enjoy a Western-style dinner at your hotel.

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    After breakfast, begin your exclusive Discovery Series events by getting a feel for everyday life in Shanghai with a visit to a local market. Then, visit a local senior center.

    Before noon, you join a Shanghai family for another, very special Discovery Series event—a Home-Hosted Lunch. You’ll see local customs enacted firsthand as your gracious hosts prepare and serve a typical Chinese meal.

    Then, visit the Shanghai Museum of Art and History, showcasing fascinating glimpses into ancient everyday Chinese life and a rich collection of artifacts from the Song to Qing dynasties.

    Enjoy dinner this evening at a local restaurant, then discover the breathtaking artistry of Chinese acrobats during an included cultural performance.

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    After breakfast, you'll fly from Shanghai to Yichang, with a box lunch available to you as you journey.

    Upon arrival in Yichang, you embark your Yangtze River cruise ship and enjoy a late dinner.

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    Wake up early as you sail toward San Dou Ping Village to see the site of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project. Until huge new locks on the north bank are completed in a few years, ships will pass the dam site via a temporary channel, which has been dug out of the south bank.

    This may be a thought-provoking visit as you hear about the monumental construction project and its effects on the people and landscape. When complete, this massive hydroelectric project will displace 1.25 million people and submerge countless archaeological sites, 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,352 villages, creating a reservoir equal in size to Singapore.

    Sit back and enjoy the scenery of the Yangtze as we spend the remainder of the afternoon sailing this massive river. For the next 150 miles, the Yangtze has forged its way through a spectacular barrier of solid limestone ridges known as the Three Gorges. You’ll enter Xiling Gorge, the longest of the gorges, noted for its narrow, precipitous cliffs. You’ll sail past tombs, shrines, and caves, through stretches of tranquil water and swirling rapids. As you cruise, look for the Twelve Peaks (enshrouded in rain and mist), Five Sisters Peaks, Three Brothers Rocks, The Needle, and Goddess Peak.

    Later, enjoy the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail Party and a “welcome aboard” show with traditional Chinese costumes and dancers, followed by demonstrations in the art of traditional Chinese massage and medicine. You’ll have dinner onboard as the ship continues cruising.

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    Weather permitting, you’ll disembark your river cruise ship this morning and take a ferry ride to the entrance of Shennong Stream. Here, you will board authentic small boats for an excursion on the Daning River or Shennong Stream (depending on the water levels) to the Lesser Three Gorges. Narrower than the great Three Gorges, these remarkable canyons are considered just as impressive as their larger counterparts. Then our Yangtze River cruise takes you through Wu Gorge, known for its magnificent scenery of lush green mountains.

    Back aboard our cruise ship by mid-afternoon, you continue through the Qutang Gorge, the shortest and narrowest of the three, but quite spectacular. This narrow gorge is a one-way passage, so upstream ships must often wait for downstream ships to clear it before entering.

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    Today you disembark for a shore excursion to Fengdu, one of the towns due to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam reservoir. When docking, you will see buildings sprawled along the steep riverbanks.

    You'll get a personal perspective on the effects of the Three Gorges Dam project during an exclusive Discovery Series visit to the home of a local family that was forced to relocate when their village was submerged. Afterward, return to your ship and resume cruising, passing underneath the mighty Wanxian Bridge, a concrete arch bridge spanning the wide gap between the banks of the Yangtze.

    During the rest of your day of cruising, you'll observe the old and new traditions of China. Because of the rise and fall of the river over millennia, the terraced fields are among the most fertile in all of China.

    Each year, new fields are carved out of the higher slopes to prepare for the future rise in the reservoir to be created here. As you pass the many river towns along the banks, you can watch the industry and commerce that drives the economy of this watery inland region.

    This evening, gather with your fellow travelers for a Farewell Dinner.

    Please note: Due to water levels, you may dock in Fengdu, Wanxian, or Shi Bao Zhai. All included features will remain the same.

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    Continue cruising on the Yangtze this morning and arrive in Chongqing after breakfast. In April of 1997, Chongqing was separated from Sichuan Province, and became an independent municipality, encompassing the entire Yangtze Valley between Wushan (Lesser Three Gorges) and Chongqing proper. You'll disembark and tour this proud mountain city, which was the capital of China during World War II, and today, is the most important inland industrial city in China.

    During your tour, you'll visit the Stilwell Museum dedicated to "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, commander of American forces in China, Burma, and India during World War II. Here, you'll learn about the colorful history of the American Volunteer Air Group, the "Flying Tigers," who were based here during the war.


    After lunch at a local restaurant, we drive to the zoo to see the pandas. With their cuddly good looks, giant pandas seem to hold a universal appeal. However, they remain one of the world's most endangered species, with just an estimated 1,000 surviving in the wild. Native to China, these bamboo-chompers inhabit small, fragmented pockets in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces.

    About 110 giant pandas live in zoos and breeding facilities, with fewer than 20 outside China. These bears have thrived at the Beijing Zoo, where they were first bred in captivity in 1963. Biologists at the zoo also recorded the first successful birth from artificial insemination in 1978. You'll observe these solitary creatures in their specially designed habitat.

    In late afternoon, you transfer to the Chongqing airport to take a short flight to Xian. On arrival, you transfer to your hotel, home for the next two nights. When ancient Peking (now Beijing) was just a remote trading post, Xian was the capital of the Middle Kingdom and one of the world's biggest and richest cities, the geographical beginning of China's fabled Silk Road. The town itself is famous for its city walls, measuring more than eight miles in circumference. Xian (then named Chang'an, meaning "Everlasting Peace") reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty. It was once one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of almost two million.

    This evening, enjoy an included dinner at a local restaurant.

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    This morning, visit the Qin Mausoleum, famed for its vast Terra Cotta Army, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More than 2,000 years ago, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried in an earth mound, along with 6,400 life-sized terra cotta warriors, archers, and infantrymen, together with their horses and chariots—individually sculpted from live models.

    In the early 1970s, farmers digging a well accidentally uncovered some of these soldiers. Since then, three large pits have been uncovered, and are now on view to the public. Walkways have been constructed to give you a bird’s-eye view of the stunning sight of an entire army carved in incredible detail (each man and each horse with his own distinct personality). Here they stand, in battle formation, set in the ground to guard and protect the great emperor’s tomb. No visit to China would be complete without witnessing the astounding Qin Terra Cotta Army, an exquisite and beautifully preserved symbol of an ancient era.


    Later, join a local family for a Home-Hosted Lunch. After lunch, you'll visit Huo Kou Primary School or Shao Ping Dian Primary School (except for July and August departures, when school is not in session), a community-founded school that is supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation. You'll be welcomed by students and have the chance to visit classrooms, read English together, witness traditional brush painting, and perhaps play some table tennis or other sports. You return to Xian in late afternoon.

    After dinner on your own, you have the evening to relax at your hotel or discover a little more of the city independently.

    Or, experience the culinary and cultural delights of ancient Xian this evening with an optional Tang Dynasty show and dinner. The beautiful costumes, enchanting dances, and ancient music of the Tang Dynasty—a period of peace and exceptional creativity from AD 618 to 907—have been carefully recreated for your enjoyment. This type of performance has been treasured as a national art that reflects the glory and richness of the Tang Dynasty. Dinner is served before the show.

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    After breakfast, set off to discover Chinese craftsmanship at a lacquerware factory, followed by a visit to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. One of the oldest pagodas in China, it is housed in Xian's Jianfu Temple. After savoring an authentic dumpling lunch at a local restaurant, you'll explore Xian's city walls, built in the 14th century by the Ming Dynasty.

    This afternoon, you'll transfer to the airport and fly from the dry northwestern plateau of Xian to the moist, semi-tropical mountainous region of Guilin.

    In the words of a Chinese poet, Guilin is known as the land of the "finest misty limestone mountains and rivers under heaven." Here you'll find China's most "Chinese" scenery, the familiar subject of so much of the country's beautiful art.

    Dinner is on your own and the rest of your evening is at leisure.

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    Your morning and afternoon are free to relax or do some exploring on your own.

    Or, join us this morning on an optional tour to the Yao Shan Tea Garden. At this Chinese tea farm, you will learn from a tea master how the delicate leaves are picked from the tea tree and then dried, and how much of the harvesting process is done by hand. You will also hear about the history and traditions that surround the growing and brewing of tea.

    Toward the end of your visit to the garden, you can taste a flavorful cup of tea brewed from local leaves and experience its subtle charm. Teas will also be available for purchase. Your Yao Shan Tea Garden visit includes lunch.

    Later this evening, we gather for a Western-style dinner at a local restaurant.

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    After breakfast, board a local river craft and cruise the Li River, passing humped limestone peaks, fishermen astride bamboo rafts, washerwomen squatting on the shore, and water buffalo ambling down to the banks for a dip. Here you can see the captive cormorants with their leashed necks, perched on rafts waiting for orders to go fishing. These are the celebrated scenes often seen in Chinese watercolors and scroll paintings. A simple lunch is served on board the boat during your River Cruise.

    In the early evening, you are transferred to the airport for your flight to Hong Kong, long the center of trade in Asia and the world's busiest port. Dinner is on your own. Please note: Depending on the water level of the Li River, the order of activities on Day 17 and Day 18 may be changed.

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    You have breakfast at your hotel and then begin a morning tour of Hong Kong that introduces you to the major sites of this vibrant city. First, make the journey between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island the way locals have for more than 100 years—aboard the Star Ferry. A motorcoach will then bring you to the Central district and the Western district, an older part of Hong Kong full of local flavor where you'll find less of the Western influence that permeates the rest of the city. You’ll drive up Victoria Peak, which offers a spectacular view of the harbor, islands, and imposing skyscrapers. This famous hill, more than 1,800 feet high, is called Tai Ping Shan in Chinese—"Mountain of Great Peace.”

    Then see where Hong Kong plays and prays as you visit the beach of shrine-dotted Repulse Bay. You’ll also see Deep Water Bay and visit the floating village of Aberdeen, which may soon become only a memory as the houseboats are moved to other harbors. In the past, thousands of people spent their lives and make their livings on junks and sampans in the harbor, though these days there are fewer and fewer fishing junks. Toward the end of your tour, you'll have time for a stop at a jewelry factory.

    Your afternoon and evening are at leisure. You may want to visit the district of Wan Chai. The district became notorious after World War II, known for its hostess clubs, tattoo parlors, bars, and sailors on leave looking for a good time. Richard Mason’s 1957 novel, The World of Suzie Wong, describes the district’s bygone era.

    You can also visit Stanley, one of Hong Kong’s oldest fishing villages and now a thriving and popular marketplace, or have a meal at one of the harbor’s floating restaurants.

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    You have the full day at leisure to explore the city. Relax, see the sights on your own, or look for some of the bargains in this city famous worldwide for its duty-free shopping.

    Golden Pavilion and Red Bridge of Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong

    Or, join an optional tour traveling through the eastern part of the New Territories, leased to Britain by China in 1898 for a period of 99 years. Known as "the land between," the peninsula across Victoria Harbor consists of rocky coastline and lush, hilly farmland—a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city itself.

    Take a stroll through the local flower market, followed by a visit to famed Bird Street, where songbirds are sold and traded. Then, visit the Wong Tai Sin Temple, a colorful example of a traditional Chinese place of worship. Continue on to Nan Lian Garden, a serene, well-appointed green space decorated in the Tang Dynasty style, followed by a visit to Sai Kung, a fishing village where you'll see how the people of Hong Kong buy and sell fresh seafood. Then enjoy a seafood lunch at a local restaurant in Sai Kung.

    Tonight, gather with your fellow travelers for a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant.

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    • Meals included:

    Say zai jian (goodbye) to China and your Program Director today. After breakfast, you'll be assisted to the airport for your flight home or extend your discoveries with our optional extension in Bangkok, Thailand.


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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

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What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect


  • 20 days, with 4 nights aboard a Victoria Cruises river ship, and 5 hotel stays

Physical requirements

  • Not accessible for travelers using wheelchairs or scooters
  • Travelers using walkers, crutches, or other mobility aids must travel with a companion who can assist them throughout the trip
  • You must be able to walk 2 miles unassisted and participate in 2-4 hours of physical activities each day, including stairs


  • Daytime temperatures range from 51-91°F during cruising season
  • June-August are the warmest months
  • December weather can be unpredictable and change quickly within a short period of time


  • Travel over uneven walking surfaces, including unpaved paths, hills, stairs, and cobblestone


  • Travel by 45-seat motorcoach, train, 28- to 30-seat boat, 100-seat river boat,  and 208- to 218-passenger Victoria cruise ship
  • 5 internal flights of 1-2 hours each


  • Most meals will be based on the local cuisine
  • Meals onboard will feature a mix of local specialties and familiar American standards

Accommodations & Facilities

  • When touring, Asian-style toilets (squat-style, rather than with seats) may be only available facilities

Travel Documents


Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.


U.S. citizens will need a visa (or visas) for this trip. In addition, there may be other entry requirements that also need to be met. For your convenience, we’ve included a quick reference list, organized by country:

  • China: Visa required.
  • Thailand (optional extension): Visa not required.
  • Japan (optional extension): Visa not required.

Travelers who are booked on this vacation will be sent a complete Visa Packet— with instructions, applications, and a list of visa fees—approximately 100 days prior to their departure. (Because many countries limit the validity of their visa from the date it is issued, or have a specific time window for when you can apply, we do not recommend applying too early.)

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips


Main Trip

  • Victoria Cruises river ship

    The only American cruise line on the Yangtze River, Victoria Cruises is distinguished by the quality of their fleet and their service. All cabins are outside, with an average size of 157 to 226 square feet, and each features a private balcony, air-conditioning, and bath with bathtub and shower. Amenities include a nightclub, bar, health clinic, reading room, fitness center, beauty salon, laundry service, and Internet access. Onboard activities include lectures on Chinese history and culture, tai chi lessons, and calligraphy demonstrations. The ships have a capacity of 208-218 passengers.

Main Trip

  • Park Plaza Beijing West Hotel

    Beijing, China | Rating: First Class

    Conveniently located just west of Beijing's city center, the First-Class Park Plaza Beijing West is an ideal home base. Hotel amenities include two restaurants, two bars, a coffee shop, a fitness center with sauna and whirlpool, and more. Each of its 262 rooms features a flat-screen TV, iron and ironing board, coffee- and tea-making facilities, safe, and private bath with bathrobe.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Ramada Plaza Peace Shanghai

    Shanghai, China | Rating: First Class

    Centrally located in cosmopolitan Shanghai, the First-Class Ramada Plaza Peace offers many amenities, from a multilingual staff and laundry service to room amenities that include a refrigerator, TV, in-room safe, daily newspaper, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and high-speed Internet.

  • Embassador International Hotel

    Xian, China

    The Embassador International Hotel is located in central Xian, a short walk from the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Hotel amenities include a restaurant, cafe, fitness center, and indoor swimming pool, and each room features a telephone, tea-making facilities, and a private bath with hair dryer.

  • Guilin Bravo Hotel

    Guilin, China | Rating: First Class

    Conveniently located in the city center on the Banyan Lake Promenade, the First-Class Guilin Bravo Hotel features a choice of restaurants, bar, fitness center, and outdoor pool. Each air-conditioned room includes wireless Internet access, satellite TV, a telephone, coffee- and tea-making facilities, safe, minibar, and private bath with hair dryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • The Cityview Hotel

    Hong Kong, China | Rating: First Class

    This First-Class hotel is located in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula, within walking distance of the Yau Ma Tei MTR (Mass Transit Railway) Station. Amenities include two restaurants, a lounge/bar, an indoor pool, fitness room, sauna, chapel, and laundry service. Each of the hotel’s air-conditioned rooms features satellite TV, telephone, refrigerator, safe, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with shower and hair dryer.


  • Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo

    Tokyo, Japan | Rating: Superior First Class

    Conveniently located in the central Ikebukuro commercial district, the Superior First-Class Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo is a perfect base for exploring Japan’s largest city. The modern high-rise hotel features a restaurant, coffeehouse, and bar. Your air-conditioned room is equipped with cable/satellite TV, telephone with voicemail, Internet access, radio/alarm clock, refrigerator, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with hair dryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Montien Riverside Hotel

    Bangkok, Thailand | Rating: Superior First Class

    Built on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, this 462-room, Superior First Class hotel features a range of amenities, including a health club, outdoor pool, tennis courts, five restaurants, and lounge. Your air-conditioned room includes cable/satellite TV, a telephone, refrigerator, safe, minibar, and private bath.

    Please Note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

Flight Information

Your Flight Options

Whether you choose to take just a base trip or add an optional pre- and post-trip extension, you have many options when it comes to personalizing your air—and creating the Grand Circle vacation that’s right for you:

Purchase Flights with Grand Circle

  • Work with our expert Air Travel Consultants to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Upgrade to business or premium economy class
  • Customize your trip by staying overnight in a connecting city, arriving at your destination a few days early, or spending additional time in a nearby city on your own
  • Combine your choice of Grand Circle vacations to maximize your value

Make Your Own Arrangements

  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline
  • Purchase optional airport transfers to and from your hotel
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent flyer miles

OR, leave your air routing up to us and your airfare (as well as airport transfers) will be included in your final trip cost.

Estimated Flight Times

Traveling to Beijing, and from Hong Kong, will involve long flights and some cities will require multiple connections. These rigors should be a consideration in planning your trip.

The chart below provides estimated travel times from popular departure cities. Connection times are included in these estimates.

Partner since: 2004
Total donated: $252,175

Supporting a World Classroom: China

Just by traveling with us, you’re supporting Grand Circle Foundation’s World Classroom initiative and helping Chinese schoolchildren prepare for their future. Because the best way to sustain a community is through education, we’ve donated funds to multiple Chinese schools. You’ll visit one of these schools (when in session) and meet the students and teachers that are working to carry on China's storied legacy.

"This was one of the high points of the trip. We had a chance to interact with the kids and observe what they were learning. Both teachers and students were very eager to show us their progress, and it appears this is an excellent school."

Ann & Barry Muhs, 7-time travelers
Rochester, New York

Huo Kou Primary School

Partner since: 2004 • Total donated: $52,515

Since Grand Circle Foundation first partnered with the Huo Kou Primary School, we have been able to enrich the students' learning and growth by funding the purchase of books, desks, chairs, sporting goods, musical instruments, art supplies, cameras, computers, and audio equipment. Donations from Grand Circle Foundation have also gone to improve the grounds of the school, helping to install new toilets and improve the roads around the school. The Foundation has also provided scholarship money to help offset the tuition of low-income students.

Shao Ping Dian Primary School

Partner since: 2004 • Total donated: $55,083

Playing tug of war with children at the Shao ping dian school

Located in the village of Shao Ping Dian, just outside of Xian, the Shao Ping Dian Primary School has 180 students, 18 teachers, and 6 classrooms, and students can take classes in Chinese, English, math, music, painting, and sports. Grand Circle Foundation donations have improved the learning environment here by helping to fill the school's need for educational materials and funding upgrades to the building's infrastructure. Recent contributions include new computers, an LCD announcement board, cameras, desks, chairs, playground equipment, musical instruments, and art supplies, along with renovations to classrooms and roads. The Foundation has also helped to cover the school's heating bills in the winter, supplemented teachers' salaries, and provided tuition assistance to low-income students.

In addition to the Foundation's ongoing monetary support, a team of 38 Grand Circle associates based in our China office recently painted the school's windows and doors during a Grand Circle community service project. The team was welcomed not only by teachers and students, but also by members of the local community.

School in session:

Late February through June & September through December

Gifts to bring if you're visiting:

  • Pens and pencils
  • Drawing paper
  • Educational toys
Alan and Harriet Lewis founded Grand Circle Foundation in 1992 as a means of giving back to the world we travel. Because they donate an annually determined amount of revenue from our trips, we consider each one of our travelers as a partner in the Foundation’s work around the world. To date, the Foundation has pledged or donated more than $97 million in support of 300 different organizations—including 60 villages and nearly 100 schools that lie in the paths of our journeys.

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What Makes This Trip Unique

Exclusive Discovery Series Events

  • 2 Home-Hosted Lunches. Dine on regional specialties as the lunch guests of families in Shanghai and Xian.
  • Shanghai market and Cao Yang New Village senior center visit.
  • Fengdu home visit. Chat with a local family whose home was displaced by the Three Gorges Dam.

Savor the authentic flavors of China with special dining

  • Mongolian barbecue lunch. Delight in an authentic meal that harkens back to the days of Genghis Khan.
  • Dumpling lunch. Dumplings have been a tasty part of Chinese culture for hundreds of years. Enjoy this timeless Chinese specialty at a local restaurant in Xian.

Enjoy the opportunity to visit 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

  • Temple of Heaven
  • Summer Palace
  • The Great Wall of China
  • Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties—Beijing
  • Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (Terra Cotta Army)
  • Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

10 Reasons to experience China & the Yangtze River
in the words of our travelers

We often find that the best endorsements of our discovery-rich vacations come directly from our travelers. Ancient dynastic treasures, picturesque Yangtze river passages, and fascinating local customs are just a few of the many discoveries that enchant those who travel to China with us. Here are some of the memorable experiences they've shared.

Beijing, China
"We loved Beijing ... We visited the downtown parks in the mornings to see everyone, from young to old, outside doing their exercises. Seeing all of the slim, fit and elderly people exercising made me even more determined to get in better shape. The visits to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall were the crowning events for Beijing, made even better by our expert Program Director and the local tour guide."
A 4-time traveler from Miami, FL

Local people
"The incidents that stick in my mind are interactions with the Chinese people—visiting two homes and meeting residents in Fung Du; seeing people singing, exercising and ballroom dancing in parks; talking to the elderly woman in the Jewish Quarter of Shanghai who remembers playing with Jewish children during World War II there! Amazing stories, and so much more than I anticipated from this trip."
A 2-time traveler from Nashville, TN

Yao Shan Tea Garden optional tour
"It was fun to learn which leaves on the plant are used for which tea, and how they make the various types of tea. Picking tea leaves provided a lot of good pictures as we wore the tea-picking hats and used these hats to put tea leaves into. The tea ceremony at the end, where we learned how to hold tea cups, was a lot of fun."
A 7-time traveler from Triadelphia, WV

Terra Cotta Army
"Nothing can equal the sight of thousands of these soldiers, all different in face, posture and weapons, as they are being unearthed from their graves inside three buildings. Archaeologists and students are busy at work slowly unearthing them and putting the pieces back together ... A farmer, tilling his field, discovered the first soldiers. That farmer is still alive and is around to autograph books some days."
A 10-time traveler from Lead, SD

School visit
"One of our best experiences was visiting the primary school and our interaction with the children. They serenaded us and our group responded with our own song."
A first-time traveler from Chicago, IL

Yangtze River cruise
"On the four-night Yangtze River cruise, we first visited the Three Gorges Dam, an engineering marvel. The cruise itself was very picturesque with bold and beautiful scenery at every turn in the river. The ship (Victoria Lianna) was comfortable ... and the crew was both accommodating and talented, witnessed by their impressive evenings of entertainment."
A 2-time traveler from Springfield, VA

Home-Hosted visits
"What we love about GCT trips, and this was no exception, is being shown the untouristy part of the country—the local markets, visiting people in their homes. One of our favorite things was the Home-Hosted lunches, particularly the second one in the farming village (wonderful food!)."
An 11-time traveler from Lakeside, CA

Shanghai by Night optional tour
"The Shanghai night cruise with dinner was fun. Good food and an amazing view of beautiful Shanghai from the water. I've never seen a city with so many beautiful buildings and so lit up at night."
A 2-time traveler from Boston, MA

Program Directors
"Sally was a wonderful Program Director and went out of her way to see that everything went smoothly behind the scenes (particularly the incredibly smooth transfers from city to city) and she gave us as much information as possible."
A 2-time traveler from Lincoln, MA

Bangkok, Thailand post-trip extension
"We took the extension to Bangkok, where we lived 40 years ago. The city had changed quite a bit, but the people were still so friendly, and it was easy to get around there ... The food, the shopping, and the availability of the Internet were great there. We would suggest that you treat yourself to a foot massage while in Bangkok."
A 6-time traveler from Southport, NC

Want to travel to China? Call us toll-free at 1-800-221-2610 for reservations and information.

The History of China’s Great Wall

How a barrier from the outside world became a complicated symbol of unity

By Julia Chruscial, for Grand Circle

The Great Wall still plays an important role in the way China’s people view their country and themselves.

Perhaps China’s most internationally famous landmark, there is much more to the Great Wall than meets the eye. Originally initiated in the third century BC as a fortification to prevent nomadic tribes from invading the newly unified China, the Great Wall we see today is composed of a number of walls constructed over thousands of years of China’s history–at first serving a security purpose but ultimately coming to demonstrate Chinese architectural ingenuity and the might of many imperial dynasties.

Legends have arisen relating to both the sacrifice and majesty represented by the wall. Its immensity, spanning 15 provinces, has even spawned a modern legend that the structure is the only man-made object visible from space—which is false because the structure curves and blends in with the landscape—and away from an aerial view. Though originally a barrier against the outside world, the Great Wall now connects many regions of China to a shared heritage and serves as a symbol of the entire nation.

A cruel but visionary leader

When Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor of a then-recently unified China in 221 BC, he ended what is known as the Warring States period of Chinese history. Intent on building a cohesive identity throughout the new empire—at any cost—the cruelly pragmatic emperor implemented numerous reforms, among them the connection of northern fortifications that would make a cohesive wall against nomadic tribes.

Though he had this first vision of the Great Wall, Qin Shi Huang would not live to see even a fraction of what his proposed project would become. He died in 210 BC, after only eleven years of rule, and was buried with his Terra Cotta Army in Xian—another vision he commissioned that would prove famous millennia after his lifetime.

At the time of his death, the Great Wall extended for 3,000 miles, but much of it would fall into disrepair during subsequent dynasties. His dynasty ended shortly after his death, when his former advisors failed to establish his son as a puppet ruler. Though now infamous for his brutality, Qin Shi Huang’s reign did begin nearly 2,000 years of imperial rule in China.

Greater freedom, though no greater security

In the power play that followed Qin Shi Huang’s death, a Han Chinese peasant named Liu Bang rose to power and began the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Whereas the brutal prior regime worked laborers to death to quickly erect the Great Wall, burned most available books, and killed scholars, the Han Dynasty encouraged scholarship, promoted diplomacy, and established a more humane civil society. Yet both dynasties faced the same security issues, and the wall’s construction continued: Han Dynasty leaders contributed largely to the western portion of today’s Great Wall. Much of what the Han Dynasty built lies in ruins in Xinjiang, Gansu, and Xining, regions that still are home to many of modern China’s ethnic minorities such as Mongols, Uighurs, and Evenks—the descendants of the people who imperial China sought to keep out with these fortifications.

A symbol matures

The Great Wall structures most people envision when they think about the Great Wall belong to the relatively “modern” portion of the wall. Spanning from 1364 to 1644, leaders of the Ming Dynasty worried about the possibility of a Mongolian invasion, and approximately 5,500 miles of what remains of the Great Wall were constructed during this period. Notable sections include the Xuanfu portion near Beijing, and Yun Tai Platform, 37 miles northwest of Beijing. Built during the early 15th century, Xuanfu served as one of the most important defensive posts on the wall and played an important role in at least 50 battles during the Ming Dynasty. And in the Juyong Guan Pass, the Yun Tai Platform was first built in the Tibetan style in 1342 by the Yuan Dynasty. After an earthquake destroyed the original structure, the Ming Dynasty rebuilt the platform as an elaborately decorated Buddhist temple, replete with carvings of celestial rulers, elephants, and inscriptions in six languages (some long dead).

Point of pride or expensive distraction?

The Great Wall still plays an important role in the way China’s people view their country and themselves. Though seen as a symbol of Chinese identity and strength during the 20th and 21st centuries, popular opinion about the wall has waxed and waned with the ideologies of different political regimes, even during some of the dynasties that contributed to the wall. Most dynasties preferred diplomacy and trade to the enormous expense of repairing and contributing to the Great Wall.

While tourists today see the Great Wall as an incredible feat of engineering come to life, Chinese people often view the Great Wall as a symbol of human suffering. Figures about fatalities vary, but it is estimated that 400,000 conscripted laborers died as they were building the wall.

The international community keeps a close eye on this iconic site, which has been declared one of the most endangered historical sites according to the World Monument Fund. A survey of the Great Wall in 2004 discovered that the famous structure suffered greatly from man-made damage over the prior 50 years, from causes as wide ranging as Mao Zedong’s famous edict to “allow the past to serve the present” by having laborers use bricks from the wall to make modern structures, to recent public works projects in western China and increased tourism at the site.

In 2007, the Great Wall was voted as one of the wonders of the modern world by the international community, though many suspect that the Chinese government’s marketing campaign about the contest drove many Chinese people to their computers to vote. Renewed interest in the wall led to an architectural survey, during which the wall was remeasured from 2007 to 2012. When completed, the survey revealed that the wall actually spanned an astonishing 13,170 miles, which is twice as long as it was previously believed to be—the latest marvel in the wall’s legendary story.