I broke the law in Xian, China.
Nobody seemed to notice. That’s probably because Chinese people obey government rules, such as the prohibition on people age 60 and older climbing high temples or riding a bicycle on the city wall of Xian.
“The government protects older people from anything too strenuous,” said a local guide. “Such rules are in their best interests. At 60, they can ride public transportation for free.”
Eschewing protection, I rented a bike to ride atop the impressive 600-year-old wall of Xian for nearly an hour, starting at the West City Gate (about $7 U.S. for 2 hours). The ride was bumpy, scenic, and exhilarating, considering that ancient locals used sticky rice as cement to hold the wall’s stones together.
“Today, you’re 59,” said the guide. Or, maybe I was just a little ahead of a change in an antiquated rule. The Chinese, who were historic world leaders for inventions such as paper and the compass, surely will discover soon that age 60 no longer is old.
I spent nearly two weeks touring China’s major travel sites including the Big Three — the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors and a protective park for pandas. I traveled on walks, bicycles, boats, buses, planes, and various styles of taxi. Afterwards, I reached three travel conclusions:
▪ Venerable tour operator Abercrombie & Kent has mastered the style of providing well-guided, handheld yet flexible, small group luxury travel in a far-flung foreign destination where even a smattering of English sometimes seems a world away.
The company’s guides made everything work, no matter the obstacles, from fulfilling capricious personal preferences and rearranging schedules changed by delays on clogged highways to picking through a boiling hotpot meal sprinkled with even hotter peppers.
▪ No matter what the brochures or online descriptions suggest, cruising the Yangtze River is not reason enough for a North American to make the long Pacific Ocean crossing to China.
A sometimes-scenic three-day float down a small portion of China’s great river, through the Three Gorges to tour of one of the world’s more amazing dams, is a pleasant, though hardly spectacular journey. Ancient villages that once lined the river now lie deep under the water.
When North Americans return home to talk about the wonders of their grand tour of China, I suspect that a Yangtze cruise will play second, third or fourth fiddle in their vacation tales. Much higher on the bucket list are a walk on the amazing Great Wall, a visit to the ever-expanding wonders revealed by excavations of the stunning terracotta warriors, and a day with dozens of fat pandas lazing in a drizzling rain while consuming huge portions of bamboo shoots.
▪ China continues to move strongly into the modern tourism business, aimed both at foreign visitors and residents. However the government, which is building successful bullet trains, still has major work to do on the highways.
The only real negative impression from a 12-day tour was time sitting in traffic. Highway use is a major problem in China, where the number of cars grows daily. Clogged city highways diminished travelers’ opportunities for free time to explore on their own or shop.
Our group also had plenty of company at tour destinations. Millions of Chinese, who have gained relatively new opportunities to learn about their own country, are flocking to such sites as the Terracotta Warriors Museum and the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center. Lines of visitors were thick, long and daunting, making experienced tour guides essential to navigate the crowds.
In peak travel periods, as many as 140,000 people arrive each day at the Terracotta Warriors Museum near Xian. The warriors are sculptures that depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The site, rediscovered only in 1974 by a farmer digging a well, is astonishing. Each warrior, constructed to protect the emperor after his death, has a separate and distinct face as copied from a real warrior. So far, 2,000 warriors have been excavated. Another 5,000 still are buried.
Touring three huge dig pits can consume a full day of walking, particularly if combined with a visit to the nearby Han Yang Ling Museum for excavations of the Han Dynasty.
At the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center, two dozen panda babies were born during 2016. More than 80 pandas live at the research center and are in clear view from the long, winding walking paths. Mostly, the pandas sleep and eat bamboo. Mothers tend to weigh about 300 pounds and have poor eyesight. All are owned by the Chinese government. Bring comfortable walking shoes and rain gear, as the climate is perfect for pandas that love damp days.
My recent trip with Abercrombie & Kent moved in a giant horseshoe, with the open side a plane ride between Beijing and Shanghai. We ate well and stayed in top luxury hotels such as Four Seasons, Shangri-La and Peninsula, as we visited Beijing; flew west to Xian, then to Chengdu; boarded a high-speed train to Chongqing; cruised on Sanctuary’s Yangzi Explorer to Yichang; then flew to Shanghai.
On the three-day cruise, one day was in the Three Gorges, a relaxing time to view scenic cliffs and lush green mountains, shrouded in mist. On another day, passengers visited a market and met residents who were among the 1.3 million people displaced nearly a decade ago by the purposeful flooding of the river.
During conversations off the vessel, which was refurbished last winter, relocated Chinese residents told us that the government built new houses for them, providing a better life than they had before the flooding. “It was in their best interests,” said a guide.
David Molyneaux is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.