The old capitals of China
Departure day, where you will fly to Beijing with connecting flights along the way.
On arrival in Beijing, you will pass through customs and immigrations before meeting our local guide, who will be waiting for you in the arrivals hall, holding an Asiatours sign. You will be driven to your hotel, and after you check in the rest of the day is yours to do with as you wish.
Beijing is the capital of contemporary China, but has actually been a capital city for around 700 years. Both previously and today, Beijing is a veritable powerhouse that has succeeded in maintaining control of a huge and mighty empire peopled by numerous ethnic minorities. The city is home to a large number of historical buildings, even though many more have been swept aside to make room for modern constructions – in exactly the same way as has happened in Europe on many occasions. Some of the biggest upheavals took place after the fall of the imperial reign and the rise of the republic, while others came in the wake of the cultural revolution.
Today, you can sense that Beijing and China are becoming a little more wary of doing away with the old.
Overnight stay Dongfang Hotel
You get off to an early start, visiting the park by the magnificent Temple of Heaven. The park is located in the south-east section 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.
From here, the tour continues to the heart of the city and to Tiananmen Square, the biggest public square in the world. The mausoleum of Mao Tse Tung is located here. At the other end of the square stands the entrance to the Forbidden City, where 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties lived, reigning over the Middle Kingdom for centuries. Today, a huge portrait of Chairman Mao decorates the wall above the gateway, 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.
After your visit, it is time to ride a rickshaw (a bicycle with a covered passenger seat) through a couple of ‘hutongs’. A hutong is an old quarter criss-crossed by narrow streets and alleys, whose origins can be traced back to the time when the Mongols ruled China. Hutongs were the quarters set up to house the soldiers. Because the houses are very small, much of life in these traditional areas of the city is lived on the streets or in the fascinating courtyard gardens. In some places, you will see people preparing food on a Primus stove, while in others you will come across old men sitting on low stools, playing Mahjong. Many hutongs have disappeared in recent years, but some have been renovated and converted into trendy commercial streets.
In the evening – for an extra fee – you have the chance to experience the Beijing Opera or watch a magnificent Kung Fu show comprising acrobatic moves that will take your breath away.
Overnight stay Dongfang Hotel
In spite of its name, the Summer Palace is not a palace in the conventional sense of the word, but an imperial park by Lake Kumning. The court of the Qing Dynasty spent much of the year here, particularly during the period leading up to the fall of the Empire.
From here, your tour continues to the Great Wall of China. Stretching over a distance of 6,000 km, the wall was built at the command of Emperor Qin, the first actual emperor of China and the first man to unite the giant empire. Emperor Qin built the wall to defend the empire from the Mongolian nomads, who were known as ‘the barbarians from the north’. The Chinese Wall, as the Chinese people themselves call it, is a hugely impressive feat of construction, in which the strategic positioning was paramount. The wall therefore runs 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 section of the wall at Juyongguan. This was an important pass, watched over by the imperial guard.
After this highlight, you will make your way to Chang Ling, the burial site of the Ming Emperor Zhu Di. He named his reign ‘Eternal Joy’ and therefore became known as Emperor Eternal Joy. Sepulchral memorials have been extremely important to all emperors throughout the history of China, and many of these rulers started planning and building memorials to themselves shortly after commencing their reign. Emperor Eternal Joy was no exception, starting work on his burial memorial in the seventh year of his reign. The work took five years to complete.
Overnight stay Dongfang Hotel
In the morning, you will be picked up at your hotel and driven to the train station in Beijing to catch a bullet train to Xi’an, a journey of around 6 hours. The rail network in China is immense. It already covers more than 20,000 km and work is continuously under way to expand it. Trains provide a popular and comfortable way to travel around China, and this form of transport also helps you appreciate the sheer size of the country. Bullet trains travel at speeds of up to 350 km/h.
Xi’an was the capital city during 13 dynasties – i.e. from approx. 1000 BC to around 900 AD. The city was also the capital of the empire when it was first unified under Emperor Qin Shi Huang. For centuries, Xi’an was the easternmost stop on the Silk Road, an extremely important trading route. The status of ‘trading terminal’ had a clear influence on the development of the city, whose citizens possessed great fortunes and espoused a variety of religious beliefs.
When the capital city was relocated in around 900 AD, Xi’an sank into oblivion and remained almost totally forgotten until 1974, when the Terracotta Army – one of the most significant cultural treasures in China – was discovered. This incredible archaeological find put Xi’an back on the global map, not as a national capital but as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On arrival in Xi’an, you will be met by your guide who will accompany you to your hotel. The rest of the afternoon is then yours to do with as you wish.
Overnight stay Grand Dynasty Culture Hotel
One of the absolute highlights of this trip is a visit to the burial site of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which is guarded by the Terracotta Army. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the man who first unified China as a single realm. He ordered the construction of The Great Wall of China and Linggu, the Great Canal, which is probably the oldest canal in the world and links the Yangtze and the Pearl Rivers. He also commissioned his own unique sepulchral memorial: the Terracotta Army, consisting of more than 6,000 life-size soldiers, all with different facial expressions. The soldiers are drawn up in battle formation, watching over the final resting place of the emperor.
Following the visit to the Terracotta Army, you move on to the incredible city wall around Xi’an, which is still remarkably intact. The wall dates back to the Ming Dynasty but actually follows the course of an earlier wall from the Tang Dynasty. It is 14 km long and, together with the central Drum Tower, constitutes the most iconic landmark of Xi’an. You can cycle the full length of the wall, which is almost completely flat on top.
Next stop on the itinerary is the Wild Goose Pagoda, a site sacred to Buddhists and one of the most beautifully distinctive features of the city. The sightseeing tour concludes at Xi’an’s Great Mosque and bazaar. The mosque is still in use, and the clearly Chinese building is encircled by a delightful garden. The bazaar is located right next to the mosque, selling everything from eiderdowns to wonderful souvenirs.
Overnight stay Grand Dynasty Culture Hotel
After breakfast, you will be driven to the station to catch a bullet train to Luoyang, a journey of around 2 hours.
Luoyang has held the position of capital city for several centuries, although at different times. The first time it was elevated to capital status was in 770 BC, and the last time was in 937 AD. Today, very few indications remain of the prestigious past in Luoyang itself, which gradually diminished in size and importance to become a small city with a population of just 20,000. From the 1950s until the present day, however, the city has expanded once more and is now home to 1.2 million people. There is also a very small historical quarter.
On arrival in Luoyang, you will have the chance to visit the impressive Buddha figures in the Longmen grottoes. During the Golden Age of Luoyang, around 100,000 Buddha figures were carved into the rock of the Longmen grottoes on the banks of the Yi River. Today, these grottoes feature on the UNESCO World Heritage List. During the Northern Wei Dynasty and in particular the Tang Dynasty, these artistic Buddha figures, Bodhisattva depictions, lotus flowers and other motifs were painstakingly carved in the 2,100 grottoes. Your visit will take you to the most noteworthy grottoes – including the Ancestor Worshipping Grotto, which is adorned with a 17-metre-high Buddha with 2-metre ear lobes.
Overnight stay Luoyang Peony Hotel
Today you will be visiting the Shaolin Monastery, which also features on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The monastery is located approx. 60 km from Luoyang near the town of Zhengzhou and has become famous worldwide for its spectacular martial arts. However, it was the Chinese Zen Buddhists who first settled here; the martial arts developed later in the form of physical exercises designed to provide relief from the hours of sedentary meditation that the monks performed. At its peak, several thousand monks lived here. Around 1,000 of them devoted most of their energy to the martial arts and became feared warrior monks, particularly during the Ming Dynasty. Today, the monastery is surrounded by martial arts schools, and both Chinese and foreign students flock to them to learn qi gong, hong quan, kung fu, tai chi chuan and other styles. The monastery is set in a truly beautiful area of countryside, surrounded by wooded mountains, and comprises, for example, the Forest of Towers, the Hall of Heavenly Kings and Mahavira Hall.
From the Monastery, your itinerary takes you to the town of Zhengzhou, which was the first capital of the Shang Dynasty, from 1600 to 1027 BC. Little remains from that time, but traces of the ancient, stamped clay city walls can still be seen in places. The main attraction today is Henan Provincial Museum, which houses a collection of more than 130,000 cultural artefacts, of which 5,000 are rated first- and second-class. Many of them stem from the earliest Shang and Zhou Dynasties.
Overnight stay Xinhua Jianguo Hotel
Like Zhengzhou, the imperial city of Kaifeng has been a capital city on several occasions and is probably the best-known of the historical capitals. Located close to the Yellow River, the city has been flooded many times over the centuries, and it was not until fully three city were built that it was sufficiently protected from the rising waters. Today, it is believed that the very oldest parts of Kaifeng lie more than seven metres below the current ground level. The city has succeeded in retaining much of the charm that you would expect to imbue any place with this much history, where most of the buildings date back to the second half of the nineteenth century. You will visit the Da Xiangguo Temple, which is considered to be one of the most important sites in the development of Buddhism in China. The temple comprises a range of beautiful buildings including the Mountain Gate, the Hall of Heavenly Kings, Arhat Hall and the Octagonal Glazed Hall.
For lunch, you will have the chance to taste a local speciality: small steamed dumplings filled with meat and served in a basket.
You will then move on to the Dragon Pavilion, which was once the imperial palace. It is located on a 13-metre-high plateau – the same height as a flight of 72 stairs – and its name references an intricate wood carving of a dragon playing with a pearl. One of the iconic buildings of Kaifeng is the Iron Pagoda which, in spite of its name, is actually built of brick. It is considered one of the finest pagodas in China today, on account of its size, history and preservation.
In the afternoon, you will be driven to the station to catch the bullet train to Nanjing, a journey of around 3.5 hours.
On arrival in Nanjing, you will be met at the station and accompanied to your hotel.
Overnight stay Nanjing Grand Metro Hotel
In the same way as some of the other capital cities, Nanjing was accorded the title of capital of the mighty Chinese empire on several occasions. The most important period was in the latter half of the fourteenth century, when, following his victory over the Mongolian hoards, the peasant rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang declared himself the first Ming Emperor in Nanjing. He adopted the name Hong Wu and quickly ordered construction of a massive city wall to protect his chosen capital. The wall became a ground-breaking construction for several reasons. It was 34 km long, between 12 and 18 metres high and featured 13 gates. It was thus the largest ring wall in the world at that time. In its design, it broke with the ‘best practice’ of previous ages as it used and exploited the natural obstacles of the landscape rather than slavishly following the pattern of a square or tortoise-shaped wall. Today, around 21 km of the wall remains.
Even though the city with its ring wall was almost impregnable and became famous for great affluence and peace, it has been subjected to several terrible attacks over the centuries. During the Opium Wars of 1840–42, it was bombarded by the English forces; in 1864, a rebellion cost 100,000 people their lives; and in 1937–38, the Japanese army massacred 300,000 residents of Nanjing. Today, Nanjing is a thriving centre of culture and industry, and the city has achieved a rare and fine balance between built-up areas and open green spaces.
Your sightseeing trip will take you to Lake Xuanwu, which is situated at the foot of Zhongshan Mountain. Xuanwu is a delightful oasis in an otherwise busy, modern city. The park is also the site of Jiuhua Mountain and the Jiming Temple. From here, you will make your way to the Qinghuai River, which flows past the city. It is a tributary to the Yangtze River and considered the lifeblood of the city.
Later on, you will visit the Presidential Palace, which was the government office for the first president of the People’s Republic of China. There is a truly delightful garden behind the palace. The day’s sightseeing tour concludes with a visit to the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, which features on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is the only Ming burial memorial outside Beijing, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful imperial mausoleums. It became a milestone in the design of sepulchral monuments for the subsequent emperors.
Overnight stay Nanjing Grand Metro Hotel
Today, you will ride the modern G-bullet train from Nanjing to Shanghai. It is a journey of 300 km and takes about 75 minutes. At the station, you will be met by our local guide who will accompany you to your hotel. Later in the day, you will visit the old canal town of Zhujiajiao, which is located on the outskirts of Shanghai. Its history stretches back almost 1,700 years, long before there was anything even resembling Shanghai.
Zhujiajiao is situated in a lowland area dotted with lakes and watercourses between Suzhou and Shanghai. The town is criss-crossed by canals that brought affluence to the region by facilitating textile production and rice cultivation. In many places, the foundations of the houses are below the water table. The canals are still used as transport routes today, and the town is interconnected by 36 bridges, some of which – such as the Fangsheng Bridge – have achieved almost iconic status. Just like other old towns, Zjujiajiao is home to beautiful temples and gardens behind its protective walls. The Kenzhi Garden is perhaps the best known, and the most atypical.
Overnight stay Shanghai Hotel
Shanghai is situated at the point where the mighty Yangtze River flows into the East China Sea. The actual location of the city has always given it strategic significance. Its history stretches back almost 1,000 years, to when it was first accorded the status of a commercial centre. Today, it is the biggest city in China, with a population of almost 25 million. Trade is no longer the exclusive occupation of the business community in Shanghai, as production has become an important source of revenue as well. Today’s tour will, however, principally focus on the historical sights and areas of the city.
The tour starts at the Jade Buddha Temple, which was destroyed during the revolution that ended the imperial reign in the early 1900s. Fortunately, the Jade Buddha was saved and a new temple was constructed in 1928. It is then time to visit the park-like harbour promenade known as ‘The Bund’, which runs alongside the Huangpu River between the narrow Wusong River and the old part of the city. The Bund was previously Shanghai’s answer to Wall Street for overseas investors and traders. A unique aspect of The Bund today comprises the numerous citizens who gather here every day to practice tai chi or dance the waltz.
From here, the tour continues to Chenghuangmiao, whose name refers not only to the magnificent temple complex, but also to the entire section of the city with its small shops selling local wares. The temple is connected to the Yuyuan Garden, which dates back to 1577 and stands proud as one of the finest examples of Chinese garden art. The next stop on the itinerary is Xintiandi, the French colonial quarter. This part of the city is made up of traditional, restored Shikumen houses built along narrow streets and alleyways. Many of the original houses are businesses, cafés and restaurants today.
Overnight stay Shanghai Hotel
The day is yours to do with as you wish until it is time to depart. You will be driven to the airport to catch your flight from Shanghai to The UK, which will include connecting flights along the way.
Depending on your itinerary, you will land in the UK around midnight.