For the average westerner, learning about China’s past is a progressively more astonishing journey, and a humbling one. Much that we regard as constituting the fundamentals of civilization were prevalent in China two or even three millennia ago: skills artistic and technological, laws and governance humane and commonsensical, mastery of the arts of war and the arts of peace, building and engineering projects of staggering magnitude, and the possibility, for some, of a life devoted to the pursuit of beauty and intellectual refinement. And then there is the fascination of present-day China, likely soon to be the world’s largest economy and destined to have an impact on all of our lives.
The most important Chinese capitals have always been in the north. Xi’an is where the imperial story began, and for centuries it was the capital of the great empire in the east, hosting the grandiose designs of the first emperor with his terracotta warriors and later anchoring one end of the Silk Road.
Beijing has been the grandest city on the planet for much of the past 800 years since Khubilai Khan made it the capital of his China-centric empire. When the Mongols were finally expelled by the Chinese Ming dynasty, Beijing soon became the most perfectly planned cosmological capital, one that would serve the Ming and Manchurian Qing dynasties for over 500 years.
Hangzhou brings us to the lands of rice and fish, where the climate is gentle and the land generous. The Yangtse Valley breadbasket first supported numerous northern governments and later bestowed its cultural riches and leisure activities throughout the entire empire. Marco Polo was enchanted by the grace and charm of Hangzhou, and in the surrounding hills monks developed some of the finest tea plantations in China. Hangzhou lives on today as a locus of relaxation and culture with profound cultural resonances for the Chinese.
Shanghai, by contrast, is a law unto itself: originally a small fishing village, it began its rise with the foreign settlements that followed the first opium war in the mid-nineteenth century. A capitalist machine, it has also been the home of much political radicalism and was where the Chinese Communist Party came into being. These sometime conflicting and irreconcilable roles give Shanghai a vibrancy and timbre like no other Chinese city.
Beijing. The tour begins with lunch at the hotel (flights from London are not included – see Practicalities). The Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) complex, effectively a sacred park set with platforms for Imperial rites, forms both a fitting antidote to jet lag and a memorable introduction to the unique qualities of Chinese sacred sites. First of four nights in Beijing.
Beijing. The Forbidden City is at once enthralling and imposing; past the formidable walls and moat are vast courtyards punctuated with terraced pavilions, palaces and gardens. Marble paving and bridges and finely-carved balustrades mark the imperial way along which lie three ceremonial halls; beyond these are the comparatively closeted living quarters. There is special access (subject to confirmation) to the Shufang Zhai, where banquets and operas were held. Afternoon visits include the 17th-century Lama Temple, formerly an imperial residence before its conversion to a Buddhist place of worship, and a Confucian temple founded during the Yuan dynasty.
Greater Beijing. The Ming Tombs in countryside outside the city are the final resting place of 13 of the 16 Ming emperors. The tomb of Emperor Yongle (1402–1424) consists of a 7-km Sacred Way flanked by stone animals and courtiers, a succession of courts with ceremonial gateways and a man-made hill concealing the tomb itself. Lunch by the Summer Palace, a peaceful setting popular with the emperors since the Jin, periodically enlarged and embellished; after its destruction in 1860 Empress Dowager Cixi expended vast sums in constructing her pleasure palace here
Jinshanling, Beijing. Morning excursion to a particularly spectacular (though relatively little visited) stretch of the Great Wall at Jinshanling. Walk along a section where it climbs and plunges over hilly terrain. Return to Beijing in the afternoon for some free time.
Beijing, Xi’an. The massive National Museum in Tiananmen Square has superb collections of early Chinese artefacts, Zhou bronzes, painting and the whole range of porcelain from Tang (ad 618–907) to Qing (ended 1911). Fly in the afternoon (China Eastern) to Xi’an. First of four nights in Xi’an.
Xi’an. Full day excursion east and north of the city. The tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, is yet to be excavated but his legacy was secured in 1974 when farmers digging a well discovered his terracotta army of infantry, cavalry and civil servants. There may be 20,000 of them, over 1.5 metres tall; only a relatively small part of the site has been uncovered, but it is nevertheless one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of all time. The pottery warriors at the later tomb of the fourth Han emperor, Liu Qi, display striking attention to detail; some eunuch figures have been found here, providing the earliest known evidence of this phenomenon in China.
Xi’an. The Shaanxi History Museum explains the history and culture of the province, the heartland of ancient Chinese civilisation. The Beilin Museum displays a collection of stone stelae, engraved with classic texts and masterpieces of calligraphy, and a fine collection of Buddhist statues. The day ends with a walk through the winding streets of the city’s Muslim Quarter. The Great Mosque, one of the largest in China, was originally built in ad 742 although the present fabric dates from the Qing Dynasty.
Luoyang. Day trip by high-speed train to Luoyang to see the Longmen Caves, an extraordinary collection of statuary carved into the hillside that runs along the western bank of the Yi River. Begun by the Buddhist Northern Wei rulers (ad 386–534) and added to during the later Sui and Tang dynasties. There are over 100,000 statues clustered in 2,000 caves and crevices.
Xi’an, Hangzhou. Adjacent to the hotel stands the Great Goose Pagoda, first built in ad 652 for the monk Xuanzang to house the sutra he brought back from his pilgrimage to India. Fly to Hangzhou (Xiamen Air), capital of the Southern Song Dynasty 1138–1279. First of two nights in Hangzhou.
Hangzhou. Start the day at the Lingyin Temple, one of China’s largest though now much reduced. Just outside the complex are dozens of Buddhist sculptures carved into the rock face, many dating back to the 10th century. Drive out of the city to Longjing (Dragon Well) Village, source of one of China’s most famous varieties of green tea. The scenic tranquillity of the West Lake has been immortalised by countless poets and painters over the centuries.
Hangzhou to Shanghai. By train to Shanghai (luggage is sent separately by van). For its density, vibrancy and extent, both horizontal and vertical, Shanghai is the city of cities. Despite frenetic building activity, enclaves of low-rise structures remain in the centre, though there is little here that is more than a hundred years old. Walk along the Bund, Shanghai’s iconic riverside stretch of Art Deco and Neoclassical buildings, symbolic of the city’s burgeoning wealth in the 1920s and 1930s. First of two nights in Shanghai.
Shanghai. Visit the Shanghai Museum, outstanding for porcelain, jade, furniture and, in particular, Shang and Zhou bronzes. See also the city’s finest traditional Yu Garden.
Shanghai. The tour ends after breakfast. There is a transfer to the airport in time for the direct flight at 11.00am from Shanghai to London, arriving at c. 4.30pm (c. 12 ½ hours).
Dr Rose Kerr
Honorary Associate of the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, having retired as Keeper of the Far Eastern Department at the V&A. She graduated in Chinese studies and spent a year as a student in China during the last year of the Cultural Revolution, 1975–6. In 2014 she became an Honorary Citizen of Jingdezhen.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £6,160. Single occupancy: £7,140.
Domestic flights (economy class) with China Eastern: Beijing to Xi’an (Boeing 737-800), Xiamen Air: Xi’an to Hangzhou (Boeing 737-800); return rail travel between Xi’an and Luoyang and Hangzhou to Shanghai (first class); transport by air-conditioned coach; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 10 lunches and 7 dinners with wine or beer or soft drinks, water, coffee, tea; all admission charges to museums; all tips for waiters, drivers and guides; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guides.
Flights from London to Beijing and Shanghai to London are not included in the price of the tour. We will send the recommended flight options (that will be accompanied by our lecturer and/or tour manager) when they are available to book and ask that you make your own flight reservation and inform us of the details. The cost of a World Traveller (economy) seat at the time of going to press is c. £700 and will be available to book towards the end of May 2017 (for 2018 departure) and end of October 2018 (for 2019 departure). Visas are required for most foreign nationals, and not included in the tour price. We will advise on the process.
Waldorf Astoria, Beijing: recently-opened, 5-star luxury hotel in the city centre. Hyatt Regency Hotel, Xi’an: A recently opened five-star hotel within the city walls of Xi’an. Sofitel West Lake Hotel, Hangzhou: 4-star hotel, located on the east side of the West Lake (rooms do not have lake views). Yangtze Boutique Hotel, Shanghai: 4-star, Art Deco hotel ideally situated close to the Shanghai Museum. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
Additional nights and airport transfers
It is possible to arrange additional nights at the hotels before or after the tour, and airport transfers.
The tour involves a lot of walking in town centres, where coach access is restricted, and a lot of standing in museums and at sites. Uneven ground and irregular paving are standard. A good level of fitness is essential. Unless you enjoy entirely unimpaired mobility, cope with everyday walking and stair-climbing without difficulty and are reliably sure-footed, this tour is not for you. There are some long coach journeys during which facilities are limited and may be of poor quality. Average distance by coach per day: 48 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.