Pandas and classic China
Departure day, where you will fly to Chongqing with connecting flights along the way.
After arriving in Chongqing, you will pass through immigration before collecting your luggage. You will meet our guide, who will be waiting for you in the arrivals hall holding an Asiatours sign.
Chongqing is the fourth-largest city in China, and the greater Chongqing area is home to around 28 million people. The heart of the city is situated at the point where the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers meet. Chongqing is an ancient city, where the population has always lived in harmony with nature’s riches and the whims of both mountains and rivers. The city is considered to be the birthplace of the Bayu culture, whose people mastered the production of bronze and created an independent, flourishing empire fully 3,000 years ago. Today, Chongqing is an extremely modern city with tall skyscrapers and a thriving commercial life. It is known to a great many tourists as the starting point for cruises along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, through The Three Gorges reservoir to the giant hydroelectric dam at Yichang.
After arrival, you will be driven to the central square, which is flanked by the Great Hall of the People on one side and The Three Gorges Museum on the other. The Great Hall of the People was modelled on the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Every morning, the central square provides the setting for citizens to train Tai Chi, dance the waltz, and perform gymnastics and other exercises. It is then time to visit the Three Gorges Museum. At the museum, you can learn more about the history and culture surrounding the development of Chongqing and The Three Gorges, all the way up to the construction of the immense dam. One of the highlights is an amazing film of a trip along the Yangtze River, screened in a 360° cinema. From here, you will make your way to the modern centre of the city, where international brand boutiques line the streets – just like in New York, London and Singapore. The Arhat Temple then awaits as a contrast to the hustle and bustle of modern urban life. With a history dating back more than a thousand years, it is one of the oldest temples in Chongqing. The temple was actually home to around 25 families until just a few years ago, when it was awarded museum status.
Overnight stay Wanyou Conifer Hotel
Your guide will accompany you to the coach station and help you board the bus to Leshan. You will be met here by a new guide.
Leshan is the site of the largest stone Buddha in the world, carved from the cliff overlooking a point where three rivers – the Dadu, Minjiang and Qingui – flow together. Towering to a height of 71 metres, the giant Buddha of Leshan is visible from a distance of many kilometres. The work to carve out the statue began in the year 713 and took 90 years to complete. The Leshan Buddha is rightly celebrated far and wide in a host of poems and songs. It features on the UNESCO World Heritage List today.
From the pool of water at the bottom of the cliff, a narrow stairway climbs up the face of the cliff beside the Buddha figure, and for every step you take your admiration of the giant statue increases. At the top of the cliff, behind the Buddha’s head, stands the Lingyun Temple from where you can inspect the details of the carved head. In addition, the temple houses a range of pictures of jolly Arhats in wonderful colours. The Leshan Buddha was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996. Instead of walking to, up and down the statue, you can choose to sail along the river to the site. This will also give you the chance to experience the remarkable place where the muddy yellow river from the plains meets the pure water from the mountains. There is a magnificent view of the statue from the water. In fact, this is the only perspective that lets you see the wonderful work in its entirety.
From Leshan, your trip continues to Emeishan. It is only a short journey, and on arrival you will pass through the tourist village on your way to Baoguo Monastery and Temple, where you will be spending the next two nights.
Overnight stay Bao Guo Monastery
Emeishan is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. The name ‘Emeishan’ means ‘Pretty Eyebrows’ and refers to two peaks that resemble eyebrows. Emeishan is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The mountain rises to a height of 3,099 metres, and is considered the most beautiful in China. It is the destination for a great many Buddhist pilgrims, some of whom climb all the way to the top and down again. From the city, you will catch the standard shuttle bus to Leidongpin, a journey that will take you along the zig-zagging mountain roads. From Leidongpin, you will walk approx. 1.5 km to Jieyin Temple, the last temple before the peak. (The distance from Jieyin Temple to the peak is 6 km). From here, there is a cable car service that will take you almost all the way to the top, and you can then walk the short distance to the incredibly delightful Golden Pagoda and Huazang Si. It is from the top that you may be lucky enough to experience the ‘Sea of Clouds’, which means looking out over the bank of clouds that are lower than the mountain peak.
After the visit, you can walk and ride halfway down the mountain, from where you walk the Xiaoping trail to the foot of the mountain. The Xiaoping trail is named after Deng Xiaoping, who worked actively with nature conservation in the Emeishan region in the 1980s. As you walk the path, you are sure to be enchanted by the unparalleled beauty of the mountain, the small villages the Wannian Si Temple with its beautiful Samantabhadra and – a little farther down the mountain – the magnificent Qingyin pavilion.
In the evening you will have the chance to visit one of the bathhouses that have been built up around the hot springs.
Overnight stay Bao Guo Monastery
Leaving Emeishan behind, the first stop on your itinerary is the Tianfu tea plantation where you are sure to marvel at how fast the pickers can nip the new shoots off the tea bushes. It takes a lot of movements to pick a kilo of fresh leaves, which shrink down to just 300 grams of tea after drying.
After this visit, you continue on to Chenjiashan, a local village nestling in the small mountains between Emeishan and Chengdu. Enjoy the feeling of walking among the citrus fruit plantations that cover the hills. Wherever you look you will see orange, lemon, pomelo and grapefruit trees – often weighed down with fruit ripe for picking. You will have the opportunity to visit a local family of farmers on their farm, where you will join the family for a traditional lunch. The practice is for guests and family to sit together around the same table, eating from the same serving dishes. You are sure to feel very welcome, even though the family is unlikely to speak any English. Your guide will be happy to translate, of course.
Following this visit to a very ‘local’ area (i.e. a place seldom visited by tourists from China or abroad), you will make your way to Huanlongxi. This is one of Sichuan’s old cities, which has recently been thoroughly renovated. The original wooden buildings with their black tiled roofs dated back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, but have now been replaced by faithful copies. The streets are paved with black slate tiles. In fact, the whole city can best be compared with a type of open-air museum. A river runs through the centre of the city, with reproductions of the original water wheels lining the banks. As you walk along the streets, you are sure to encounter some of the special delicacies of Sichuan cuisine: deep-fried scorpion and snake wine. You will also experience some other typically Chinese features such as professional ear cleaners, who offer to clean your ears for a small fee.
Towards the end of the day you will arrive in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province in South-West China. Chengdu is one of the most important financial and transport hubs in the region. Sichuan Province lies at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, and the western part of the province is famous for its numerous ethnic Tibetan villages, traditions and customs. This explains why Chengdu has a large Tibetan quarter. It is a charming city with plenty of cosy tea houses and fine restaurants.
Overnight stay Holly’s Hostel
The day starts with one of the absolute highlights of this tour: a trip to see the pandas at the Giant Panda Base. The centre is one of four that have been set up in China to save the panda from extinction. It is both a nature park and a research centre and lies approx. 10 km from Chengdu. The centre extends over an area of around 300 ha, which is covered with the only food giant pandas eat: giant bamboo. The centre is home to approx. 120 giant pandas, as well as other fascinating animals such as the beautiful red panda, and a variety of birds including the black-necked crane. You will arrive early in the morning so you can enjoy the sight of the charming pandas having their morning feed. The four panda centres have all been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
From here, the trip continues to Dujiangyan to see a very different UNESCO World Heritage attraction. The Dujiungyan irrigation system is 2,200 years old, making it the oldest system of its kind in the world. It does not feature a dam, but uses a system of canals, streams and floods to lead water out over the otherwise dry and dusty plains. It is actually a feat of engineering that came to play a significant role in the development of irrigation systems throughout China. The system comprises three important parts: Yuzui, Feishayan and Baopingkou, which were built to control the water level in the rivers running from the mountains to the plains around Chengdu all year long. The Dujiangyan irrigation system was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000, together with Qingcheng Mountain. Dujiangyan covers a vast stretch of land, and as you walk around the area you will gradually realise what an incredible feat of engineering the irrigation system was – and actually still is.
Overnight stay Holly’s Hostel
The morning is devoted to visiting a number of local markets. The first stop is at a local food market, where you can marvel at all the unfamiliar fruit, vegetables and meat on sale – everything from chicken’s feet to quail eggs. You will also discover how the locals mince meat without a mincer. Next on the list is a street given over to various textiles, with stalls selling everything from bed covers to warm winter coats – all wholesale. Watch the buyers leaving the market carrying heavy loads on their backs or balancing them on oversized trolleys. After the textile market, it is time to visit the spice market, where all kinds of dried spices are sold in bulk. The scent of pepper and chilli is so strong that it will tickle your nose from a great distance.
The visit to the markets winds up at Chengdu’s famous tea market. This is a fine area of charming old shops where you can see different types of tea being sorted by hand. Buyers come here from all parts of China to buy tea, while locals often drop by to pick up a chic tea set. In one of the classic tea houses, you will have the chance to experience a traditional tea ceremony. You will also have the opportunity to buy some tea to take home with you.
As a fitting end to your stay in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, you are invited to enjoy a traditional Sichuan meal: a hot pot. It is a firm favourite in the area, and consists of meat and vegetables boiled in either a mild or a hot and spicy soup. The meat and vegetables are brought to the table raw, and you then skewer what you want and boil it in the soup. It is almost like a Chinese version of fondue. In years gone by, it was a winter meal intended to keep people warm; today, however, the popular and tasty dish is served all year round.
Overnight stay Holly’s Hostel
The day starts with transport by public bus from Chengdu to Songpan, which is approx. 300 km north of Chengdu. The guide will accompany you to your bus, which is of an excellent standard – fully on a par with European buses. The bus will make a number of stops en route to give you the chance to stretch your legs and to buy some refreshments. The journey will take you from the flat plains around Chengdu up through the hills and small mountains to the beautiful peaks in Min Shan, where several of the mountains are more than 6,000 metres high. It is a beautiful trip that will take between six and eight hours depending on the traffic. On arrival, you will be met by a new guide who will accompany you to your hotel.
The city of Songpan is one of China’s less-famous but truly magnificent cities. Ernest Henry Wilson, the English botanist, wrote: “If destiny arranges me to live in Western China, I have no other choice but Songpan.” And it is an utterly wonderful place. The city is very old, but still retains around half of its tall, broad city wall. A wide mix of ethnic people – Buddhists, Muslims and others – have lived peacefully here side by side for centuries. Out in the streets you will encounter traditional costumes more often than western clothes. The Tibetan women wear their magnificent head coverings both in the city and when working in the fields. The Yak abattoir is located in the centre of the city, and no part of the animal goes to waste. As you stroll along the streets, you may find some of the foods on sale slightly strange: dried ox tongue, dried kidneys in fat or how about half a smoked duck, including beak and webbed foot?
Songpan is located at an altitude of around 3,000 masl, which means it is rather chilly here – and very different from the 25–30°C in Chengdu. As such, you will need a warm fleece sweater and a windproof jacket for the next few days.
Overnight stay Old House Inn
Get ready for a good walk in the country today! You are to visit Mu Ni Gou, a magnificent area of countryside that closely resembles Huanglong, but with far fewer people. The trip starts with the journey from Songpan to Mu Ni Gou, which is around 30 minutes away by car. On arrival in Mu Ni Gou, it is time to head off along the nature trails. Mu Ni Gou comprises two side valleys and includes more than 100 lakes, natural hot springs and waterfalls. It is generally agreed that the most beautiful attractions are the Zhaga waterfall and Erdao lake. The valleys are located at an elevation of 2,800–4,070 masl, and the mountain peaks reach heights of up to 6,000 masl. The mountainsides are clad in both deciduous trees and conifers, as well as all kinds of rhododendrons and the very rare rowan tree with its bright red berries. The blue water in the lakes and rivers is crystal clear, and an utterly enchanting ambience permeates the entire area. The terrace lakes are known as ‘The Five-Colour Lakes’ on account of how the colours play across the water. The valleys constitute one of the rare ‘karst landscapes’ that arise under special geological conditions in cool mountain regions, where limestone deposits create unusual landscapes. Other natural features here in Mu Ni Gou include grottoes with stalactites, unspoiled woodland and copses, sulphurous springs, rare plants and wildlife – imbued with Tibetan culture in the form of settlements, temples, etc.
Historically, Mu Ni Gou played a key role in China’s trade routes, where tea was carried by bearers and pack animals through the valleys and across the otherwise impenetrable mountains. This was one of the regions where Ernest Wilson took many of his fantastic photos more than a century ago.
Overnight stay Old House Inn
Jiuzhaigou is famous for its wonderful landscape of mountains, cliffs, rivers, lakes and waterfalls, dotted with ethnic Tibetan villages. The best-known features are the turquoise and green lakes, the spectacular waterfalls and the small, conical limestone formations. Jiuzhaigou means ‘the valley of nine villages’, and the name refers to the ethnic Tibetan and Qiang villages located in the gorge. The valley was first ‘discovered’ in the 1970s by a group of foresters, who quickly recognised the peculiar beauty of the region. They encouraged the authorities to protect the valley by according it national park status. The valley was already inhabited, however, and when you travel through the small village communities, you have every opportunity to enjoy a very special cultural experience.
The villages are home to around 1,100 Tibetan and Qiang people, both ethnic minorities with deep roots in the Buddhist faith and traditions. The temples are richly ornamented, and they feature prayer wheels just like in Tibet. Many of the people who live in the valley dress fully or partially in traditional costumes. The national park is the habitat of unique flora and fauna. For example, the giant panda has returned since the bamboo has grown back after flowering in the 1980s. The area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992.
You will spend the whole day in Jiuzhaigou National Park, which is around a 2-hour drive from Songpan. The main attractions – and the accessible part of the park – comprise the Shuzheng Valley, which runs from the entrance all the way to Norinam, and the two tributary valleys, Zechawa and Rize. This y-shaped section covers an area of 720 km² and comprises 118 Alpine lakes, 17 waterfalls – some of which are in ‘steps’ – numerous watercourses and a wealth of rare plants and animals. The water, which is coloured a variety of shades of blue and green on account of the minerals in the area, is the soul of the national park, where it creates both a stupendous landscape and an extremely special atmosphere.
The people of China have the following to say about the water in Jiuzhaigou: ‘no water is worth your attention once you have seen the water here.’ The famous sights in the park have been given poetic names such as ‘the spring of the hanging sword’, ‘the lake of the scented grass’, ‘swan lake’, and ‘the pearl river waterfall’.
You will walk and drive through various parts of the park, spending your time in the places you find most interesting. The special park shuttle buses run continuously, and you can hop on and off as you wish.
NB! As from the entrance to the national park, it is only possible to drive in the park shuttle buses. This means that you are not allowed to drive through the park in a private minibus, for example. However, the national park shuttle bus service is efficient and convenient, with departures at regular intervals.
Overnight stay Old House Inn
The day is yours to do with as you wish until late in the afternoon, when you will be picked up and driven to the airport for your flight from Jiuzhaigou to Beijing. On arrival in Beijing, you will be met by our guide who will accompany you to your hotel.
Overnight stay Dongfang Hotel
Following check-in, it is time to go sightseeing in the city, which has been the capital of China for around 700 years, and continues to fulfil this role. Centuries ago, Beijing was already the administrative powerhouse of the empire, and as such, the setting for numerous palaces and temples. Even though much of the past has had to give way to modern construction, the city is still home to a great many historical buildings. The day’s sightseeing begins in Heavenly Temple Park, which is located in the south-east of the city. Every year, the Emperor travelled here from the Forbidden City to pray to the gods for a bountiful harvest. Today, the park is used by thousands of Beijing citizens for practising tai chi, or for singing and dancing to music from an old ghetto blaster or a modern smartphone.
The tour then continues to Tiananmen Square in the heart of the city. The square is so huge that it can easily accommodate one million people. The mausoleum of Mao Tse Tung is located here. At the other end of the square is the entrance to the Forbidden City, from where 24 emperors ruled the Middle Kingdom. A huge portrait of Chairman Mao decorates the wall above the gateway today, and the Forbidden City has become a giant museum. The Forbidden City measures 760 x 1,000 m, and is the most beautiful and best-preserved palace in China, comprising dozens of wonderful buildings. The Forbidden City was so called because it was forbidden for commoners to cross the bridge into the huge palace – and death was the sentence for anyone who defied the prohibition. Only the Emperor, his family and his staff were permitted inside the walls.
From the Forbidden City, the tour continues on to Jingshan hill – a man-made hill a little way to the north. It was from here that the imperial forces kept watch for the evil spirits from the north, who brought only death and misery with them. The hill is the highest point in Beijing, and the view from the top on clear days is truly astounding.
The day finishes off with a visit to Houhai and Nanluoguxiang. Houhai is one of three lakes that are known collectively as ShiChaHai. There are a great many courtyard houses here, making up a wonderful area distinguished by a serene tranquillity, in stark contrast to the otherwise frantically busy city. At the same time, it is one of the ‘happening’ areas of the city, where large numbers of cafés, bars and boutiques selling clothes and applied art have been established.
In the evening, you can – for an additional fee – go to see a Kung Fu show, which is an amazing artistic experience.
Overnight stay Dongfang Hotel
The time has now come to head off to the Great Wall of China.
‘The Chinese Wall’– which the Chinese people refer to as ‘The Great Wall’ – is a highly impressive, 6,000-km-long defensive installation, whose strategic positioning was paramount. The wall is therefore built along the summits of a ridge of hills, where it would be most difficult for the enemy to breach. Some parts of the wall are extremely steep, with extraordinarily uneven steps.
You will be visiting the wall at Mutianyu, where you can see the magnificent structure stretching along the ridge of mountains for miles and miles. It is a truly amazing sight. In the far distance, you can just make out some of the isolated advanced watchtowers, which are located on a ridge of mountains a little farther to the north. The wall varies greatly as regards both width and incline. The steps are also very uneven in both height and depth. This restored section of the wall is between 6 and 8 metres high and 3–5 metres wide. The wall features embrasures along its full length, as well as watchtowers every few hundred metres.
Overnight stay Dongfang Hotel
The day is yours to do with as you wish until you are picked up and driven to the airport to catch your flight back to the UK. There will be connecting flights along the way. (You may actually arrive home on the fifteenth day of your trip).