By Rebecca Borman
A year ago, if someone had asked me the top five places I’d like to travel, my list would have looked something like this: Egypt, Normandy, London/England, Antarctica, and some sort of river cruise. Note that China is not on that list. So, when someone posited the idea of traveling together to China, I hesitated. She suggested I take a look at a Viking Tour called Roof of the World, and I was intrigued. I remembered that Japan was never on my list either, but a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto some years ago was a wonderful adventure. I couldn’t stop thinking about the China itinerary, and before I knew it, I was signed up to go with my new friend and travel companion. And, thank goodness for that, because it was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. And, also, one of the most exhausting!
Make no mistake, this was a trip that required a lot of energy, both mental and physical. We spent 17 days in China, flying around the country to many cities including Beijing, Xian, Lhasa (in Tibet), Chongqing, Wuhan, and Shanghai. We stayed in four stunningly beautiful hotels, ate lots and lots of food (much but not all of it Chinese), and had some time to relax on a six-night cruise on the Yangtse River. We saw dancing (traditional and ballroom) and acrobats. We were educated by many young, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic tour guides. And we saw some pretty amazing places.
I had most looked forward to seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors, and they did not disappoint. In fact, they were even better than I expected. Eric, who was our Viking tour guide for the whole trip, had studied archaeology at university and had actually done work on the Warriors early in his career. So, he gave us some great perspective not only on what the site means to China and the world but also on the process by which it is being excavated. I was surprised to see that most of the statues were discovered in pieces, which are being painstakingly assembled. The work started in 1976, and it will be a long, long time before the job is finished.
And who wouldn’t love the opportunity to climb the Great Wall of China? Issues with my back have left me less mobile than I was when I signed up for the trip, so I was afraid I might only be able to look at the Wall from below. But, climb it I did…with a cane, some help from two strangers, and in a downpour. As I was making my way up the very slippery steps and stones to the top, I suddenly felt a strong hand on my elbow. A young Chinese man and his friend had seen me struggling, and they made it their business to help me. They practically swept me up those stony steps! It is one of my best memories of the trip.
The most challenging part of the journey was our time in Lhasa, 12,000 feet above sea level. Most of us were affected by the altitude to some degree. In fact, the hotel has an “oxygen lounge,” a room into which oxygen is pumped. I visited there for a while one morning, for some quick rejuvenation. While we were in Tibet, we visited temples and monasteries, because while much of China is atheist, nearly everyone in Tibet is Buddhist. I wouldn’t have missed this part of the trip for anything!
Tired as we all were, we longed for our next leg, the cruise on the Yangtze. This was my first river cruise…I hope not my last. It was so peaceful to sit on the veranda and watch China go by. We sailed through the Three Gorges and the locks of the Three Gorges Dam. We passed miles of terraced farms. We saw local people washing their clothes in the river. We passed countless barges hauling just about anything you can think of, from produce to automobiles. It was a lovely experience.
So, what did I take away from this trip? An appreciation for the Chinese people, who were cheerful and friendly, although few speak English. An appreciation for Chinese drivers, who negotiate enormous cities filled with pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, buses, three-wheeled bike-trucks, rickshaws, and lots of cars. The rules of the road seem to be flexible, but the madness happens in silence…no honking allowed! An appreciation for how hard the Chinese are working to become a modern country. And, an appreciation for the stunning juxtaposition of ultra-modern cities with ancient sites like the Forbidden City, The Great Wall, and the Terra Cotta Warriors.
When asked if I’d like to go back to China, I give a resounding no. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I feel absolutely satisfied with what I saw and did.
And when asked if I’d like to go on another river cruise, I give a resounding yes!