From ancient temples to sacred mountain tops, China’s religious heritage is unique. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism have all had a significant presence in the country for a millennium and more.
The first three of these – two of which are indigenous to China – comprised the ‘three teachings’ supported by Imperial policy, and historically their influence reached into every aspect of Chinese daily life; the buildings, sculptures and artworks that resulted are astonishing. Indeed, spiritual, artistic and architectural traditions developed by Chinese religious cultures spread throughout east Asia, and in spite of the vicissitudes of recent history remain alive to this day.
This tour starts in Beijing, which is still recognisably a sacred city laid out by the emperors on cosmological lines – arguably the most significant example of that phenomenon in the world. Such structures as the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan), the Lama Temple and the Confucius Temple, all cornerstones of Imperial religious life and ritual, form a fitting introduction to the richness and variety of Chinese religion.
Highlights include the holy mountain of Wutaishan, where there is a significant Tibetan presence in the heart of traditional China, and a collection of ancient Buddhist temples packed with modern pilgrims. By contrast the exquisite Foguang Temple (ad 857) stands in a beguilingly peaceful rural setting. Here is one of the oldest wooden structures on the planet, its original sculpture and painted decoration astonishingly intact.
At Datong’s Yungang caves and the ancient desert monastery of Dunhuang, by contrast, the cosmopolitan roots of Chinese Buddhism took hold. The spread of this Indian faith across the country in the first centuries of the Common Era transformed China’s religious life and brought to the country its first permanent stone religious building, the pagoda. There are fine examples of what is effectively an elongated and orientalised Buddhist stupa at Xi’an and Yingxian.
The architecture of the pagoda, as well as the great painted and sculpted caves and cliffs of early Chinese Buddhist monasteries, are vivid reminders of this era of dramatic cultural change, their artistic styles still visibly infused with ideas from India, Central Asia and even the Classical West, all on the cusp of becoming something new and distinctively Chinese.
Chinese religious culture is at once precociously humanist and testimony to a society in which spirituality infused every aspect of daily life. In the course of this remarkable series of sites, we will come face to face with the exceptional achievements that resulted.
London to Beijing. Fly at c. 4.30pm from London Heathrow to Beijing (British Airways, c. 10 hours).
Beijing. Arrive at Beijing Airport at c. 9.30am and drive to the hotel for lunch. 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 two nights in Beijing.
Beijing. The morning is dedicated to the Forbidden City, at once enthralling and imposing with its formidable walls, moat, vast courtyards and works of art. The delightful Jinshanling hill behind it provides a unique perspective on what is, with its imperial altars, temples and central palace for a divinely mandated emperor, arguably the world’s finest surviving example of a planned ‘sacred city’.
Beijing to Qufu. The massive National Museum in Tiananmen Square displays extraordinary ritual bronzes of ancient China. In the afternoon, visit Beijing’s most important lamaistic and Confucian places of worship, positioned close together near the edge of the old city. Travel south by high speed train to Qufu in the Shandong province. First of two nights in Qufu.
Qufu. Spend the day in the town where Confucius was born, a place that combines the atmosphere of a pleasant backwater with the all-dominant presence of China’s one truly enormous religious complex: the temple, house and cemetery of the great philosopher and his descendants. The roots of this remarkable series of sites palpably stretch back to late prehistory.
Taishan, Taiyuan. Leave early to drive to Taishan, the most significant in a network of Taoist sacred mountains, characteristic of this faith of oneness with nature. Climb (by coach and cable car) to the Jade Emperor peak, site of imperial sacrifices for a deeper encounter with Taoism. In the afternoon, fly (Shandong Airlines) north-west to Shanxi province, an area that contains the greatest concentration of historic buildings in China. Overnight Taiyuan.
Taiyuan, Wutaishan. Drive to the foothills of Wutaishan to visit the eighth-century Foguangsi and Nanchansi Buddhist temples, that may between them be the best-preserved and oldest complex timber structures in the world, all the more memorable for their rural setting and for having much statuary and other features intact. First of two nights in Wutaishan.
Wutaishan. Conditions permitting, there is a morning excursion to one of China’s most important Buddhist holy mountains, the Wutai (five-terrace) peak, visiting the historic temples at its heart with their strong Tibetan influence and memorable historic fittings and artefacts. (If Wutaishan cannot be accessed, there will be an alternative visit to the remarkable Jin Ci ancestral hall and Taoist shrine complex.)
Yingxian, Mt Hengshan, Datong. Drive north to Datong, visiting a succession of remarkable sites: the Yingxian pagoda, one of the most artistically impressive examples of this Chinese take on the Buddhist stupa; the picturesque Hanging Temple, clinging vertiginously to its cliffside site. First of two nights in Datong, home to one of China’s greatest displays of monumental Buddhist cliff-sculpture.
Datong. The Yungang caves were begun in the sixth century by a dynasty with its cultural roots in Buddhist Central Asia. Nearby the Huayan temple is an extraordinary storehouse of Buddhist art, including the spectacular timber sutra library.
Datong to Xi’an. In the morning, fly (China Southern Airlines) to Xi’an. There visit one of China’s most atmospheric historic mosques, originally built in ad 742 and a memorable example of how oriental culture responded to the challenge of the western monotheisms. The Baxian An is a busy example of a modern urban Taoist temple. Overnight Xi’an.
Xi’an to Dunhuang. Adjacent to the hotel stands the Great Goose Pagoda, a living monument to the Indian and Central Asian roots of Chinese Buddhism, a theme which will start to dominate as we move west into the desert setting of Dunhuang. In the early afternoon, fly to Dunhuang (China Eastern Airlines). Dunhuang is a small oasis town with low-rise buildings along wide avenues, flanked to one side by colossal sand dunes. First of two nights in Dunhuang.
Dunhuang. The Mogao caves at Dunhuang, with their rich sculpture and extraordinary survivals of ancient painting, are one of the world’s most memorable sights, and a testament to the sophisticated and cosmopolitan cultures that thrived along the famed Silk Road. The museum contains important artefacts unearthed at the caves, including rare Tibetan sutras. The Western Caves, set by an attractive river valley, are fewer in number but also contain exquisite paintings.
Dunhuang to Beijing. Fly to Beijing (Air China) departing c. 12 noon and arriving mid-afternoon, leaving time for a concluding lecture and dinner before the homeward journey. Overnight Beijing.
Fly at c. 11am from Beijing to London, arriving at c. 3pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £5,610 or £4,930 without international flights. Single occupancy: £6,290 or £5,610 without international flights.
Flights (World Traveller) with British Airways: return London to Beijing (Boeing 777), with Shandong Airlines: Jinan to Taiyuan (Boeing 737), with China Southern Airlines: Datong to X’ian (Airbus A330), with China Eastern Airlines: Xi’an to Dunhuang (Airbus A319), and with Air China: Dunhuang to Beijing (Boeing 737); first class train travel, travel Beijing to Qufu; private coach for transfers and excursions; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 10 lunches and 7 dinners with wine or beer, water, coffee, tea; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and local guides.
Required for most foreign nationals, and not included in the tour price.
Waldorf Astoria, Beijing: recently-opened, 5-star luxury hotel in the city centre. Shangri-la, Qufu: modern 4-star in the historical centre, with large rooms and a swimming pool. Kempinski, Taiyuan: a 5-star luxury hotel located in the commercial district. Marriott Wutain Mountain, Wutaishan: 5-star and located in the foothills of Wutaishan. Rooms have mountain views and there is a health club. Yungang Meigao, Datong: opened in 2011, a 4-star glass tower construction with good-sized rooms, close to the city centre. Westin Hotel, Xi’an: modern, stylish and well-run 4-star hotel, located in the south of the city. Silk Road Hotel, Dunhuang: large hotel situated close to the Mingsha Sand Dunes, rated locally as 4-star (the website is currently in Mandarin only). Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
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. Uneven ground and irregular paving are standard. 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.