Buddhist Temples and Grotesque Rocks: My Tour of China – China

Buddhist Temples and Grotesque Rocks: My Tour of China


Forbidden City
Forbidden City
For two weeks during the summer of 2004, I enjoyed China from the window of a tour bus. I traveled through Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Shuzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou and Shanghai. Before I continue this article, you should understand that I had a wonderful time in China. I really did. I have nothing against Ritz Tours – the guides were funny, accommodations top notch, and attractions carefully selected. But when I travel, I want to truly experience a country’s culture, people, food, and lifestyle. My ideal trip is one during which I wander around lost, throw up food I knew I shouldn’t have eaten, and spend late nights in my flea-bitten bed debating what to do the next day. My mother and many others on the tour, however, loved the ease of being catered to. Reading the highlights of my experience will hopefully help you decide whether you want to see China with a tour group or on your own.

Day 01 USA: – Beijing
I bought a ReliefBand in hopes of remedying my motion sickness on the plane ride. The “gentle electric stimulation” turned out to be nasty electric jolts that kept me awake. I removed it three hours into the flight and fortunately felt fine for the remaining nine hours.

Day 02: Arrive Beijing
After clearing customs and making fun of the Chinese tour groups who had obviously just returned from Disneyland, we meet the other 25 people in the group. Most are families with teenage children. We get acquainted over dim sum at a restaurant filled with tour groups. To my delight, the restrooms are nothing more than holes in the ground. The rest of the day is a free day. Mom and I have a late lunch at a vegetarian restaurant that serves convincing fake meat. We spend the afternoon at the Silk Street Market, an outdoor market famous of its knock-off brand name goods. Coach purses run for $5, Tommy Bahama shirts for $10, and Rolex watches 2/$5. Chinese vendors specialize in ripping off ignorant American tourists. Please never pay full price for anything bought on the street! Bargaining is a fun game of offering a quarter of the price, some gesticulations, walking away, having them chase after you, and finally paying about half of the asking price. Many of the vendors sell similar goods so never feel obligated to buy something from a specific vendor.

Day 03: Beijing
A continental breakfast of pastries, dim sum, fruit, and leftovers from dinner is served to a looping CD of Celine Dion’s greatest hits. Our first stop is to a Buddhist temple to observe worshippers light incense and burn paper money. We walk through Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square. We are told not to mention the killings that occurred there because the government tries to pretend they never happened. It was surreal to see Mao Zedong’s portrait displayed so proudly. Several hours are devoted to the Forbidden City, the royal palace that was off limits to visitors for 500 years. The city contains 800 ceremonial buildings, containing 9,999 rooms, and a courtyard that can hold 100,000 people. We learn tasty details of imperial concubine culture. Later we go to the beautiful Summer Palace on Kunming Lake, the vacation home of the royal family and location of the world’s longest corridor. We dine on the famous Peking duck for dinner. Duck with lotus buns and green onions have become my new favorite food.

Day 04: Beijing
We walk along the Great Wall of China as I meditate on the time and number of lives it took to construct this world wonder. The steepness and unevenness of the brick surprise me. Halfway through, I get “crazy tourist syndrome” and take a picture dressed like an Empress on a cutie of a camel. We then drive for a few hours to the Ming Tombs. We walk through some underground rooms and look at scraps of pottery. Dinner is accompanied by a touristy showing of the Beijing Opera – which includes short performances of orchestral music, dancing, martial arts, and singing. The highlight is a dancing scene where a woman chases her lover down the Li River. Unfortunately, the rest of it is gaudy and unauthentic. The adults retire early and the younger folk in the group enjoy the Beijing night market scene. It’s remarkable to see how busy the city is at night. While wandering through the good stands, we see and smell blood jello, fried rats on sticks, snake, scorpion kabobs, and boiled genitals. One girl runs off a few times to throw up in the street. I buy a knockoff Harry Potter DVD for a quarter and feel slightly guilty for the rest of the night. Alan, a student at USC, and I become fast friends. The two of us sneak up to the roof of the hotel to chat and watch the people below.

Day 05: Beijing-Xian
The day starts at the Temple of Heaven where we take some photographs before flying to Xian, the ancient capital city that served as the starting point for the Silk Road. When we arrive, we stop by a Buddhist temple where a sweet old lady grabs onto my arm and asked for assistance walking into the bathroom. I see what she was up to (don’t trust anyone in China) and stop her from slipping the camera out of my pocket. Then we witness an incredible archeological discovery — an army of 6,000 Terra-Cotta Soldiers that guard the tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. A museum was built around this archeological site to protect it as well as to let visitors see the digging/reconstruction process. You can pay to take a picture with the farmer who discovered the solders on his land. He was once destitute but now has a movie and full time job autographing his new book. Dinner is a 17-course dumpling dinner.

Day 06: Xian
How is it possible that a trumpet rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” has followed us to Xian? The morning is cold and rainy when we scale the city wall. Several people grumble that there is nothing to see. The guide halfheartly tries to convince us of the historical significance of the wall. We watch a Tang Dynasty Show, which celebrates the artistic, literary, and economic success of the most famous era in China. I find the show to again be overdone and regret not ordering alcohol. At night we enjoy a famous Chinese massage (popular because they are cheap) during which scantily clad girls rub our bodies. My masseuse and I carry on a great conversation despite the language barrier. She tells me I am funny looking for a Chinese girl. I like her although she is obviously untrained. My back hurts for the next two days. We return to the hotel for a standard jumbled buffet dinner of pasta, salad, sushi, and egg rolls.

Day 07: Xian-Guilin

Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven
We wake up early and see the Wild-Goose Pagoda. The long bus rides tires everyone out and makes us cranky. Many of the families are bickering at this point. We fly to Guilin where we visit two famous gardens. They contain two of the most famous rocks in China. The rocks greatly excite mom, who had heard about these rocks throughout her entire childhood. We enjoy hot pot for dinner – a Chinese version of fondue.

Day 08: Guilin
Here we explore the Reed Flute Cave, which contain fantastic stalactite and stalagmite formations. Visiting caves is one of my favorite things to do on vacation (no sarcasm here) so I am enthralled by rocks that resemble dried fish, cacti, Santa Claus, and New York City. We then drive over two hours to Elephant Trunk Hill that features a rock that looks vaguely resembles an elephant. I try hard to be enthusiastic. We take many photos and visit another Buddhist temple. I will take this opportunity to describe our normal meals. They are all served in restaurants especially for tourists and usually include jellyfish, fried fish, steamed chicken, a mushroom bowl, rice, and soup. The food is reasonably authentic.

Day 09: Guilin
A slow river cruise down the beautiful Li River takes up most of the day. We watch rural fishermen use birds to catch fish, women doing laundry, and children playing outside. The scenery is gorgeous and serene. Think “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. We stop by a jade factory and a silk factory to shop. At the hotel, we watch a minority folklore show that involves heavy audience participation. Since most of the group is shy, I end up dancing on stage for the entire show. I think I get married at some point to Alan. It is great fun.

Day 10: Guilin–Nanjing-Wuxi
On the way to Wuxi, we take a break at the Sun Yat-Sen mausoleum perched atop an enormous flight of stairs. I pretend to be Rocky and run up the stairs twice. Since we spend so much time on the bus, I take the opportunity to observe Chinese life and ask my mom about our family history. Being in her native country inspires her to tell wonderful stories about our ancestors. Famous calligraphers and postmen are scattered throughout our lineage. It is dinner time when we arrive so we sample the city’s famous spare ribs and go to the hotel for an early sleep.

Day 11: Wuxi-Suzhou-Hangzhou
Today is an intense day of travel. We tour Lake Tai, home of the most excellent fresh water pearls in the world. Naturally, we are taken to a pearl store, which contains beautiful and affordable jewelry. Feel free to bargain at these places. Cheered up from shopping, we bus to Suzhou, nicknamed “Venice of the East” and the “Garden City”. Here we visit the third famous grotesque rock of China. By this time, I am tired and refuse to pose for a picture in front of it, catalyzing a fight between my mother and me. We also visit the Han Shang Temple and progress to Hangzhou.

Day 12: Hangzhou-Shanghai
In Hongzhou, we visit another Buddhist temple. By this time, most of the children and even some of the adults in the group have started to boycott Buddhist temples because they all look the same. We stay in the bus and play cards instead. We visit the crooked Ying Yang Temple and take a cruise on Westlake, scene of a famous tragic love story. For some reason, we sit on the bus for two hours in order to go to and drive across the first long bridge built in China. Sitting in a vehicle equates torture for me so I am furious that we have to do this. We fly to Shanghai in the evening.

Day 13: Shanghai

Li River
Li River
Shanghai is China’s largest metropolis and its cosmopolitan center. It is a city packed with skyscrapers. I am normally a huge fan of urban density but I am overwhelmed by the amount of people that live here. Fun fact: Shanghai is one of the few cities in the world that rewards you for being born there. Shanghainese people go to the best schools, pay the least taxes, and often get the best jobs. Our tour of Shanghai takes us to Yu Garden, where we take pictures more out of habit than admiration. We visit the Waterfront Bund, the European district where signs once bore the slogan “Chinese and Dogs Not Allowed”. One side of the port looks like London and the other looks like a scene of a science fiction cartoon. We get some time to shop on Nanjing Road, the most fashionable shopping district in China. We celebrate our last night by attending an acrobat show. It is highly entertaining to watch the performers drop props and run into each other (my sense of humor is really sick). But overall, it is a fun time.

Day 14: Shanghai – USA
We go to bed early and depart for the U.S. in the early afternoon.

If you talk to people, you will realize that most were taken to the same attractions, stores, and performances all over China. If you don’t mind that, then Ritz Tours is a great option. If you are a seasoned and adventurous traveler, I would recommend exploring a few cities in China on your own or going as part of a service trip. Granted, China is not as easy to travel independently as Europe. Ideally, you should go with a Chinese friend that has family to stay with. Experiencing Chinese hospitality, traditional food, and their unbreakable family ties is the best way to see real China. There are also many opportunities for teaching English for a summer or volunteering in an animal reserve. As the Chinese proverb says, plan carefully and you will be rewarded.