China is rich in history and tradition, but today’s China is more than a trip back in time. It’s a glimpse into the future. Don’t think for a moment that China has lost its ancient traditions and revered history. For although China is changing in big ways—quite literally in front of your eyes—its cultural past remains evident at every turn.
China has always been at the top of my list of “must sees.” Its traditions and history have fascinated me since I was young, and I recently fulfilled my dream of experiencing this ancient land, embarking on a 9-day tour through what I call China’s Big Three: Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an.
As my plane touched down in Beijing, I imagined what I would see in the taxi on the way to the hotel. I envisioned flocks of bicyclists flooding the streets, rickshaws whisking people about, open-air markets selling traditional Chinese foods and crafts.
Was I ever in for a surprise. For today’s Beijing (and China in general) is an ultra-modern, cosmopolitan metropolis becoming more and more westernized by the day. The bicycles and rickshaws and markets are still there, but so are cars, taxis, Gucci and Prada.
But don’t think for a moment that China has lost its ancient traditions and revered history. For although China is changing in big ways—quite literally in front of your eyes—its cultural past remains evident at every turn. The tour I took provided me a “behind the scenes” glimpse of this fascinating, ever-changing nation and its incredible metamorphosis into a land firmly rooted in both the past and the future.
Here I stood where China’s transformation began, beyond the stately Gate of Heavenly Peace in spine-tingling Tiananmen Square, where hundreds of Chinese still gather to visit Mao’s tomb. At the Temple of Heaven, I watched as elderly Chinese gathered to play music and chess on the grounds of the Ming Dynasty’s place of worship.
The Great Wall
No trip to China would be complete without a visit to this landmark, only 90 minutes outside Beijing. Here, I walked a section of the ancient defensive fortification, begun in the 3rd century B.C., taking in the ruggedly gorgeous scenery.
Outside Beijing, the Ming Tombs are the final resting place of 13 Ming Dynasty emperors and their concubines. Our tour guide explained to us that when the one viewable tomb of the thirteen was opened, it took a full two years to locate the buried emperor in the sprawling 9-room maze!
Museum of Terra Cotta Warriors – Xi’an
Xi’an is home to this startling archaeological find, discovered by a farmer in 1974. This collection of over 8,000 clay soldiers dates back to as early as 500 B.C. The figures were buried with each emperor to protect him in his afterlife. My tour group was allowed to venture down into the pit where the soldiers stand—a rare privilege. I could not believe my eyes. Each life-size soldier has its own unique face, giving credence to the theory that each soldier was made in the image of either its sculptor or a real warrior of that time.
Xi’an Municipal Institute of Archaeological Research – Xi’an
Here we gazed at some of the Institute’s collection of 130,000 relics, including the world’s oldest wine, found in the tomb of a West Han Dynasty emperor in 2003. During our visit we were able to put on white gloves and hold some of the relics, including ancient coins and jade statues.
Forest of Steles – Xi’an
Located on the former site of the Temple of Confucius, the Forest of Steles is a collection of over 3,000 stone tablets inscribed with teachings and lectures, including those of Confucius himself. We were allowed to choose the inscription we liked most and create a rubbing of it to take home.
Shaanxi Provincial Historical Museum – Xi’an
This museum, housing over 113,000 historical and cultural relics, is home to the world’s largest collection of Tang Dynasty paintings. My tour group was given VIP access to the museum’s underground vault that houses its most priceless and delicate paintings, artifacts and relics. We also met the team of German archaeologists who painstakingly restore the museum’s relics.
Nicknamed “the Paris of the East,” Shanghai is a gorgeous, cosmopolitan city of elegant shops, cafes, gardens and temples. At the Jade Buddha Temple, we saw up close the famous 1.92-meter-tall Buddha statue carved of a single piece of white jade. Shanghai is also China’s shopping capital, home to name brand retailers from all over the world, as well as local merchants. I was able to pick up cashmere and silk gifts for friends at home at spectacular prices.