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.
4 nights from only $1395
94% of our travelers rated this vacation "excellent" in 2015.
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Embark on your transpacific flight from your choice of several U.S. gateway cities.
Arrive in Beijing this afternoon or evening, where a Grand Circle representative will meet you at the airport and assist you to your hotel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
4 nights from only $995
87% of our travelers rated this vacation "excellent" in 2015.
Explore one of Asia’s great and bustling cities—a city of famous temples and shrines, of fine museums, galleries, and performance venues. Bangkok is rich with both culture and contrasts, a place where small side streets lined by traditional shops and buildings nestle quietly between more fast-paced and lively main thoroughfares.View Extension Itinerary