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, where a Grand Circle representative will meet you at the airport and assist you to your hotel.

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    After breakfast, get to know your Program Director and fellow travelers at an orientation briefing, where you'll go over the details of your trip and have the opportunity to purchase optional tours.

    Then embark on a included tour of the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Temple of Heaven 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, a number of buildings, gardens, and pathways—whose organization symbolize the relationship between Earth and Heaven—comprise the temple, and this layout profoundly influenced Chinese architecture and planning for centuries. As you explore the temple grounds, you might find locals practicing tai chi, calligraphy, or playing music.

    Enjoy lunch at a local restaurant before continuing on to 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.

    This evening, gather with your fellow travelers for a Welcome Dinner featuring traditional Chinese cuisine at the hotel.

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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.

    Transfer to the airport for your flight to Shanghai this afternoon, arriving in the early evening. Tonight, dinner is at a local restaurant.

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    After breakfast this morning, see the lavishly decorated Jade Buddha Temple, a relatively new but elegant structure. The Buddha statue here is older than the current temple, which dates back less than 100 years, and is carved of solid white jade, encrusted with jewels. Then stop by at a nearby carpet factory.

    After a traditional Mongolian barbecue lunch, 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.

    Enjoy this evening at leisure in Shanghai. Or, discover the beauty of Shanghai by Night during an optional tour that 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. 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 persue 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 more than 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 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 and then a senior center.

    Before noon, join a Shanghai family for another, very special Discovery Series event—a Home-Hosted Lunch. 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.

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

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    After breakfast, fly from Shanghai to Yichang, with a box lunch available to you as you journey. Arrive in Yichang this afternoon, and embark your Yangtze River cruise ship, where you'll enjoy a late dinner onboard.

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    Sit back and enjoy the scenery of the Yangtze this morning.

    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.

    You'll also 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.

    This evening, 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.

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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 the country.

    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 is the most important inland industrial city in China today.

    During your tour, 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, drive to the zoo to see 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. Observe these solitary creatures in their specially designed habitat.

    Then transfer to the Chongqing airport to take a short flight to Xian. On arrival in the mid-afternoon, transfer to your hotel. 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 a dumpling 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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    After breakfast, 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 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. 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 the 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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Questions and Answers

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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.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

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 5 hotel stays and a 4-night cruise
  • 5 internal flights of 1-2 hours each

Physical Requirements

  • Walk 2 miles unassisted and participate in 2-4 hours of physical activities each day, including stairs
  • 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
  • Program Directors reserve the right to modify participation, or send travelers home, if their limitations impact the group’s experience

Terrain & Transportation

  • Uneven walking surfaces, including unpaved paths, hills, stairs, and cobblestones
  • Travel by 45-seat motorcoach, train, 30-seat boat, 100-seat river boat,  and 208- to 218-passenger cruise ship


  • Daytime temperatures range from 51-91°F during cruising season
  • June-August are the warmest months

Accommodations & Cuisine

  • Asian-style toilets (squat-style, rather than with seats) may be the only available facilities
  • Onboard meals feature both local specialties and American standards

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

  • Radisson Blu Hotel Beijing

    Beijing, China | Rating: First Class

    Conveniently located in Beijing’s commercial center, the Radisson Blu Hotel Beijing features three on-site restaurants, offering a variety of international cuisine, bar, fitness center, and indoor pool. Your air-conditioned room includes TV, Internet access, coffeemaker, and private bath with hair dryer.

    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 Royal Garden Hotel

    Guilin, China | Rating: Moderate First Class

    Located right on the tranquil Li River, the 335-room Guilin Royal Garden Hotel provides a peaceful haven close to downtown Guilin. Take advantage of the hotel's ample facilities, including four restaurants, a bar, nightclub, shopping arcade, fitness center, outdoor swimming pool, and tennis courts. Your air-conditioned room offers a telephone, satellite TV, coffee- and tea-making facilities, refrigerator, minibar, safe, 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

Customize Your Trip

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 customizing your trip—and creating your own unique travel experience:

Purchase Flights with Grand Circle

  • Choose the departure city and airline that works best for you
  • Depart from one city and return to another
  • Upgrade your air itinerary based on your travel preferences
  • “Break away” before or after your trip to explore independently or re-energize
  • Combine two or more trips to make the most of your value—and avoid another long flight
  • Extend your discoveries with pre- or post-trip extensions

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 $164 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.

The Great Wall
"The one thing I wanted to do was walk on the Great Wall, which we did. I made it up the hills for five and a half towers. I did not make it to the 6th, but some of the group did. Most of our group chose the more-traveled side so there were many other people climbing with us."
A first-time traveler from Littleton, CO

Yangtze River cruise
"My favorite was the Yangtze River cruise. It was a time of just relaxing, and the view from my balcony was amazing. The food was delicious, entertainment was wonderful and the activities and special speakers were also very interesting. I truly did rest up and enjoyed the days we disembarked the boat for additional tours."
A 2-time traveler from Williamsport, PA

Program Director
"Our Program Director, George Zhang Ke was great in organization and information given to us. We could not expect more. He was especially great in bringing home to us the lives, and changes in the lives, of the people throughout the years by narrating to us the experiences of his family and himself that lived through the Cultural Revolution."
A 5-time traveler from Overland Park, KS

Terra Cotta Army
"The Terra Cotta Army was everything I expected and more. Mark, our Program Director was right about all the different faces of each and every one of them. ... Standing in the pit with the warriors was my most memorable moment.  That was awesome for me."
A 4-time traveler from Mesa, AZ

Local culture
"I liked visiting a senior center, a market, and several homes, because they gave us insight into daily life. ... Our group was interested in every aspect of the country, so we learned about the Cultural Revolution, life in a hutong and how/why people are relocated, but we also learned about income tax, traffic laws and what Chinese girls want in their prospective husbands."
A first-time traveler from Thousand Oaks, CA

Tokyo, Japan pre-trip extension
"Junko was an outstanding Program Director. She went above and beyond to show us Tokyo. There were only four of us and she offered us so many extra opportunities when we would have had free time. We saw a real tea ceremony & went to the Tokyo fish market just to name a few. We rode the subway with her which was an experience."
A first-time traveler from Milford, MI

Grand Circle Foundation school visit
"As a retired teacher, I look forward to visiting schools and learning about the educational system. The children at Shao Ping Dian School were delightful, happy to be interactive with us, and enjoyed sharing any English they knew. George, our Program Director, arranged several activities and songs for us to do with the kids. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the visit."
A 2-time traveler from Milwaukee, WI

"Shanghai's riverside walk along the Bund was enjoyable ... In Shanghai, there were many visits, including a senior center and lovely fashion show, an acrobatic show (what talent!), a first Home-Hosted Lunch in a hutong (along with a rickshaw ride), an extensive and inviting fresh produce market, and the Shanghai Museum of Art."
A 3-time traveler from Fredericksburg, VA

Local people
"The sights were fantastic but the best part of the trip was learning about the people and culture of China ... It was a priceless learning and discovery experience. ... We saw affluence and poverty, modern China and ancient China. We were in Hong Kong while the student protests were taking place and were able to see and hear what impact the protests were having on the city as well as gather opinions from our guide, who was born in Hong Kong and lived through the British Rule and the return to Chinese Rule."
A 3-time traveler from Sunset Beach, NC

Li River cruise
"My favorite experience was the day we cruised the Li River. I have seen this scenery many times on paintings and scrolls, but to see it live was awesome. I am glad this was included as part of this trip!"
A 7-time traveler from Mulberry, FL

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

History, Culture & More

Learn more about the history, art, culture, and more you’ll discover on this trip by reading the features below. These articles were collected from past newsletters, Harriet’s Corner, and special features created for Grand Circle by our team of writers.

Review: Pearl of China

Examine a Chinese author’s tribute to Pearl Buck, once considered persona non grata by the Maoist government, but now a celebrated cultural icon.

Read More »

Shimmering Xian

Follow one writer’s journey through one of China’s oldest cities.

Read More »

The history of China’s Great Wall

Discover the complicated history of the Great Wall, which stretches over a period of time as long as the wall itself.

Read More »

History, Culture & More

Review: Pearl of China

Anchee Min’s tribute to Pearl Buck

by John Bregoli, from Insider

When author Anchee Min was a teenager in 1972, she was told to denounce Pearl Buck as an “American cultural imperialist.” And like just about everyone else in China at the time, Min did her duty—even though she had never even heard of or read any of Buck’s work. It was only years later, after Min became an established author, that she finally had the chance to read The Good Earth. Min said that she burst into tears after realizing “how beautifully Buck had told the story of the Chinese peasant, in a way that few others, even Chinese, had ever done.” While painting such a loving tribute to Pearl Buck and early 20th-century Chinese life in Pearl of China, I’d say Anchee Min does a pretty good job herself.

When a child is born to a destitute family in a southern Chinese village at the end of the 19th century, the grandmother wants to name the girl Weed. She believes that the gods would have a hard time making the poor child’s life any worse if she is already at the bottom. But the girl’s father disagrees. “Men want to marry flowers, not weeds,” he argues. So they split the difference and name the baby Willow.

But Willow’s life does indeed sink lower. The girl is soon reduced to stealing and begging just to keep from starving—until the day she befriends the local missionary’s blond-haired daughter, Pearl Sydenstricker. After that, Willow’s life is transformed. The lifelong bond formed by Pearl and Willow serves as the backdrop to Pearl of China, the fictionalized story of a very real girl who grew up in China—Pearl S. Buck, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Good Earth and the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Min’s highly entertaining novel of Buck’s life in China (and her later years in America) is told through the eyes of narrator Willow Yee, a pleasant way to show American readers the Chinese perspective on the life of Pearl Buck. And it works splendidly.

Historical events through a fictional lens

While relating the fascinating tale of Pearl Buck’s life, the book’s sweeping narrative takes us through several tumultuous events in Chinese history. The Boxer Rebellion is up first—and it serves as the first test of Willow and Pearl’s friendship. While the Boxers believed that foreigners were destroying China, it had never even occurred to Willow (or to Pearl, for that matter) that Pearl was not Chinese. But the American family’s lives are in danger when the Boxers make their way to the village of Chin-kiang. So Pearl and her parents—the near fanatical Presbyterian missionary Absalom and his long-suffering wife Carie—must flee to Shanghai.

Yet even during several other episodes when their lives diverge—Pearl leaves China to study in America, and they each vie for the affection of the same Chinese poet—Willow and Pearl’s bond endures. Min makes us care deeply for both women as we witness their years of unhappy marriages and shattered dreams, and at the same time, we learn much about the hearts and lives of impoverished Chinese villagers of the period.

When Mao and his Communists begin their takeover of China, Buck is declared a traitor, both for her unflinching writings about Chinese poverty and because she wouldn’t play politics with their cause. So in 1934 Pearl is forced to leave the country, never again to see her (fictional) friend Willow (I like how Min, through Willow, Cannily observes that Pearl will have trouble adjusting to life in the United States, for “although Pearl was American,” she says, “beneath her skin, she was Chinese.”) For the rest of her life, Pearl dreams of returning to China, and during Nixon’s historic 1972 visit, she finally gets her chance. But this was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, so it came as no great surprise when she was refused entry into the country. Pearl Buck died the following year.

Pearl Buck was a brave woman who was beloved by the Chinese people—and loathed by Chinese authorities of the day. But attitudes in China have loosened with the passage of time, and Pearl Buck is finally being celebrated for her courage and compassion in the country she grew to love so much. Yet, ironically, Min’s novels are still banned in China.

History, Culture & More

Shimmering Xian

China’s antique jewel

by Molly Mastantuono, for Grand Circle

With the sleek steel skyscrapers of Shanghai's ever-growing skyline, it’s clear that China is forging full steam ahead with its latest Cultural Revolution.

Business is undeniably booming here (according to BusinessWeek, the per capita income has tripled within the past generation alone), and the Chinese people are clearly enjoying the fruits of their burgeoning economy: There seem to be more SUVs than bicycles in the city streets, and a preponderance of high-end designer boutiques and posh hotels attest to the considerable—and growing—influence of the West.

Thankfully for visitors, the sweeping changes taking place across the country haven’t lessened the visceral impact of one of the world’s oldest and most illustrious civilizations. The city of Xian, in particular, is ensuring that China’s glorious past is manifest in its future: To wit, most of the buildings under construction here reflect traditional architectural styles, with iconic red and yellow glazed-tile roofs and graceful upturned eaves.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t skyscrapers in Xian, or that the city doesn’t have other, more modern, claims to fame; as the center of the nation’s film industry, Xian is China’s answer to Hollywood, and the city is known for its thriving underground rock music scene. But somehow, the city manages to maintain its provincial charm ... and that’s why I cherished every minute I spent in Xian.

Crucible of culture

The capital of Shaanxi province in central China, Xian (pronounced “shee-AHN”), means “Western Peace”—a fitting name, indeed, for a city surrounded by fertile, verdant farmlands (the apples and golden pomegranates sold on roadside stands here are as large as an infant’s head). Although perhaps not as well known internationally as Shanghai or Beijing, it’s one of the nation’s most important cities: Widely regarded as the cynosure of Chinese culture, Xian served as the capital of twelve dynasties and boasts an impressive history spanning more than 7,000 years.

In fact, many regard Xian as the birthplace of Chinese civilization. In the mid-20th century, archaeologists discovered evidence of an ancient settlement known as Banpo Village along the banks of the Yellow River, in an eastern suburb of the city. Artifacts indicate that Banpo culture was both matriarchal and agrarian, with residents cultivating millet and chestnuts and raising pigs and dogs as livestock. Their most notable achievement, however, was producing fine pottery, which they decorated with human, animal, and geometric designs. Many of these pieces are on display at the Banpo Museum, which remains an active archaeological site.

However, the history of Xian can be said to officially begin with the emergence of the Qin Dynasty. Although he ruled for a relatively short period by modern standards (221-210 BC), Emperor Qin Shi Huang engineered a pivotal moment in Chinese history: under his reign, a handful of warring, feudal states became a unified country. The emperor established Xian as the capital of his emerging nation, naming it Chang’an—“Perpetual Peace”—and enacted a series of large-scale reforms to consolidate his power. In addition to standardizing language and law and building fortifications, palaces, and a system of roads, Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of a Great Wall to defend his kingdom.

Earthenware army

Qin Shi Huang was also responsible for the creation of the world-famous Terra Cotta Army—a life-size battalion of more than 8,000 soldiers and horses that were buried with the emperor upon his death. Individually and painstakingly crafted out of clay, it’s said that, like snowflakes, no two figures are alike. What’s more, this large-scale arts-and-crafts project reportedly took more than 700,000 workers and artisans nearly 40 years to complete.

We can thank the emperor’s paranoia for the creation of this aesthetic masterpiece, which is often hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Apparently, Qin Shi Huang had made so many enemies during his reign that he deemed it necessary to have a full-scale army to protect him in the afterlife. Now that I’ve seen these clay soldiers for myself, I can’t exactly argue with the emperor’s logic: The Terra Cotta Army is indeed formidable, as much for the remarkable hubris of the man who commissioned them as for the bellicose figures themselves.

Equally formidable is the notion that this inimitable cultural treasure might have been lost to the world forever. Although we now know that the imperial tomb was looted shortly after Qin Shi Huang’s burial (the invaders destroyed hundreds of statues and set a blazing fire that reportedly burned for three months), the Terra Cotta Army was soon forgotten. And it remained forgotten for more than 2,000 years, until one spring day in 1974, when a group of farmers intent on digging a well unearthed instead a remarkable piece of Chinese history.

City of ancient treasures

While the Terra Cotta Army is undeniably the historical highlight of Xian, Qin Shi Huang’s soldiers are not the city’s only claim to fame. Xian is also home to the oldest, largest, and best-preserved City Wall in China. Originally constructed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the ancient fortification was extended and enhanced during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Rising more than 60 feet high, and ranging in thickness from 40 (at the top) to 60 feet (at the bottom), the City Wall is more than nine miles long, and surrounded by a deep moat. It all adds up to one spectacular panoramic view of the city.

Another Xian landmark is the Bell Tower (Zhong Lou), which marks the geographic center of the ancient capital. Built in 1384, its purpose was to keep time in the city, and it once housed the famous Jingyun Bell, a copper instrument of such superb quality that its sound was reportedly carried for miles. Across town sits the Bell Tower’s “sister structure”: the Drum Tower (Gu Lou). With their dark green glazed tiles, curling eaves, and gilded tops, both are colorful and dramatic examples of Ming-style architecture.

Historically, the Bell Tower’s instrument chimed at daybreak, while the drum in its sister tower was struck at sunset. During the Ming Dynasty, the evening drum was used to maintain public order; upon hearing the ominous noise from the Drum Tower, Xian residents were expected to immediately head for their homes, where they would stay for the rest of the night. Seeing this elegant structure in the evening today—with its eaves bedecked by strings of glowing lanterns and bulbs, and the boisterous streets around it filled with locals and tourists alike—I found it impossible to believe this vibrant city could ever be silenced, even by martial law.

That said, there are a few places in Xian where silence is golden. One is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Da Yan Ta), in Da Ci’en Temple. Built in 652, this simple but inviting seven-story structure housed the statues, scriptures, and other Buddhist relics brought back to the city by the eminent scholar Xuanzang, who spent 17 years in India studying the religon. In addition to translating all of the sutras he’d collected into Chinese from Sanskrit, Xuanzang also wrote a book about his travels, Journey to the West, which is considered to be one of the four great classics of Chinese literature.

Another Xian site where tranquility reigns is the Small Wild Goose Pagoda (Xiao Yan Ta), built in 707 and part of the scenic Jianfu Temple complex. As its name suggests, it’s considerably smaller in scale (142 feet) than the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (212 feet), despite the fact that it has more tiers (13) than its counterpart. A highlight of the complex is the nearly 12-foot high, 10-ton “Magic Bell” dating back to the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). According to legend, striking the bell will send messages of affection and devotion across time and distance to one’s beloved. For a small fee, temple visitors can strike the bell themselves using a large piece of wood not unlike a battering ram. (I did; however, my beloved was traveling with me, so I’m fairly certain he’d already gotten the message.)

The end of the long and winding (silk) road

Another beautiful—and peaceful—Xian landmark is the Great Mosque, among the largest and best preserved in China. A mix of traditional Muslim and Chinese styles, the temple complex consists of four separate courtyards, each with its own ornate pavilions and gateways, and a large Prayer Hall.

Among China’s major cities, the significant Muslim population—an ethnic minority known as the Hui—here in Xian is unique. (China recognizes 56 distinct ethnic groups, the largest of which, the Han, accounts for about 93 percent of the country’s total population.) The easternmost terminus of the famous Silk Road, Arab merchants and travelers brought the religion of Muhammed to Xian along with the silk, spices, and other goods they came to trade.

I found myself drawn to the city’s Muslim Quarter, and not just for the bargains to be found in the labyrinth of overflowing stalls collectively known as the Muslim Bazaar. (Although, truth be told, I found the shopping here the best out of all the places I visited in China; I happened upon a small tailor shop here where I had two beautiful silk jackets custom-made for me—in a snap and for a song.) Rather, it was the atmosphere here that I cherished; this section of Xian is a noisy, busy, friendly place where you can’t help but return the smiles and cheerful “ni haos” (“hellos”) of passersby.

Not that friendliness was limited to the Muslim Quarter; everyone I met in Xian seemed genuinely interested in meeting visitors and justifiably proud of their country. And while I undoubtedly enjoyed the time I spent in Shanghai and Beijing, my heart belongs to Xian; upon returning home, I wholeheartedly agreed with the anonymous Chinese poet who lamented, “the place we are pining for is Chang’an.”

History, Culture & More

The history of China’s Great Wall

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

by Julia Chrusciel, for Grand Circle

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 Dynastye. 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.

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