In the Chinese Year of the Pig, I nearly squeal admiring thousands of astonishing life-size Terra Cotta Warriors, famously created to guard a megalomaniac emperor in the afterlife. Then, after dodging vendors selling fried scorpions-on-a-stick, I ogle the ominous 9,999-room Forbidden City once inhabited by legendary dynasties, imperial eunuchs and concubines required to have dainty feet.
Capping it all, my eye-opening November visit to perennially mysterious China ends on a historic high. No photos or movies can convey how awe-striking it is to actually climb in person atop part of the 4,000-mile-plus zigzagging Great Wall. (And please forget cheesy arrow-slinging Matt Damon battling human-eating monsters on this icon in “The Great Wall” film.) This is the planet’s lengthiest defensive barrier, begun more than 2,300 years ago and erected throughout centuries by millions of laborers to thwart marauding nomadic tribes.
“We call the Great Wall the longest cemetery in the world,” my guide Angie Wang says. “You can feel the strong spirit of the Chinese here. Thousands and thousands of people died while building this, to protect us in ancient times.”
I expected grandiose heritage-rich monuments in China (although not workers unwillingly entombed in them), but maybe, because of hearing “Eat your food, children are starving in China” as a kid, I didn’t expect the current-day superpower to look so forwardly modern and glaringly capitalist despite a Communist regime. Futuristic near-identical high-rise condo towers soar everywhere, and cities dazzlingly light up glitzier than Las Vegas. Most motorists drive Chinese-made vehicles, including — check this out — the hybrid Trumpchi car. The name has nothing to do with our trade war-tussling president; it translates to “passing on happiness.”
First off, my trip’s logistics: China, which is the world’s most populous country with a whopping 1.4 billion people, is also geographically huge with little English spoken. To make it easy, my husband and I are on a meticulously organized, escorted 14-day Viking River Cruise tour (www.vikingrivercruises.com), which is actually eight days on land in upscale hotels and a six-day boat journey on the Yangtze River, and includes two domestic air flights within China and a high-speed train voyage.
We’re divided into groups, so our brigade of 38 travelers is led by super-informative Angie, who enlightens us nonstop on intriguing customs, such as, “In China, we eat noodles on our birthday, not cake, because anything long means long life.” Angie also discusses weightier topics, including the one-child policy that the Chinese government imposed on parents from 1980 to 2016 to curb the country’s massive population. A second baby elicited a $30,000 fine in cities or the child would “never be officially recognized” and unable to attend school or find work. Girls in particular were given up for adoption.
“Most people my age have no siblings. We are one child,” says the well-educated 36-year-old Angie, who lives in China’s capital Beijing. “But it’s OK. We prevented 300 million people from being born with that policy, and that’s good. We are already too many people in this country.”
China now allows a second child, partly because there aren’t enough younger ones to look after elders. “It is compulsory for children to take care of their parents,” Angie adds.
Our itinerary, called “Imperial Jewels of China,” starts in bustling 26 million-populated Shanghai. In the old quarters, merchants carve teeny smiley Buddhas on olive pits; in newer Shanghai, waterfront skyscrapers pulsate in a nightly 3-D animated LED spectacle and China’s first-ever Costco draws mobs (police had to be called on opening day when 10,000 shoppers stormed the store). From Shanghai, we jet to Wuhan, a smaller hub of 10 million residents and, impressively, more than 80 universities. Here, my husband and I board the Viking Emerald and settle into our berth on the — uh-oh — fourth deck. “Four is considered an unlucky number because it’s associated with death,” Angie had earlier told us. “Many condos and buildings jump from floor three to five.”
Fortunately, I’m sporting my Chinese lucky-color red knotted bracelet with my zodiac-year snake charm. Soon, after sailing past Wuhan’s high-rises and bridges, again all stunningly flashing in changing colors and zingy patterns, we’re in the gritty thick of the Yangtze, a major shipping route for “made-in-China” industries. The air is gray with pollution. This may not be the beautiful castles-and-vineyards scenery of typical Viking river cruises, but it’s a captivating glimpse into economic powerhouse China, where everything from iPhones to our socks to Teslas are cranked out. Live-aboard cargo barges with pallets of covered goods constantly drift by on their daily routine — a woman washes mariners’ dishes in an outdoor metal sink; another friendly seaman waves to us with his yellow Lab puppy at his side.
The Emerald, our own floating hotel, is a 250-passenger Chinese chartered vessel, with a congenial Chinese crew and delicate tea shop that sells white peony leaves to detox your liver. Onboard, a female tai chi master teaches the graceful restorative exercise at 7 each morning while encouraging us to “spread your wings like a white crane.” The ship’s physician, Ryan Wang, is a doctor in traditional Chinese medicine and applies skin-vacuuming suction cups on passengers to treat various ailments.
Cruise director Kobe Wong, who is a snowboarding, basketball-loving 36-year-old Beijing resident, humorously lectures on chopstick etiquette (“never stab at food”) and the “unprecedented toilet revolution.” Heads up on the latter: in public restrooms, China mostly has squat toilets and no toilet paper. Besides a move to add more Western sit johns, at least one tourist spot, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, installed a T.P. dispenser that does facial recognition of patrons — the same kind airports use — to spit out a short strip of tissue while deterring paper thieves.
One morning, we serenely glide in a sampan on jade-green waters of the picturesque Goddess Stream gorge, where hanging coffins of the ethnic Ba people jut from steep mountainsides to be closer to heaven. Another day, we practice English with eager third-graders at a Viking-sponsored school in Jingzhou.
Then, after being wooed by bamboo-chomping giant pandas at the Chongqing Zoo, we hop a train to Xian, a city boasting a phenomenal UNESCO World Heritage site. Still eerily in their dirt excavation pit — which is about two football fields long — some 2,000 life-size Terra Cotta Warriors stand battle-ready in formation, their expressive faces all uniquely different with varying hairstyles and armor. Two nearby pits contain more of the reconstructed battalion. They’re among 8,000 clay warriors, all interred more than two millenniums ago near the sprawling tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the beyond. The emperor had much to fear since, among other misdeeds, he buried Confucian scholars alive. Following his death, enemies smashed his sculpted soldiers; you can see decapitated heads and body parts strewn about ready to be pieced together by museum experts. The entire army, along with their horses, chariots and 40,000 authentic bronze weapons, laid underground until a local farmer dug a well in 1974. “He found a pottery head looking up at him,” Angie says.
On Xian’s culinary front, a street stall cook stretches a scarf-length string of dough in the air and slaps it on a counter to make “biang biang” noodles, a regional specialty christened for that bang-bang sound. Diners wash down the noodles with firewater, China’s popular booze that can be 80 proof. (It nearly ignited my mouth!)
At our final destination, Beijing, we linger among real-life soldiers patrolling in centuries-old Tiananmen Square, dubbed the world’s biggest public square with enough pavement to accommodate 1 million people. To Americans, this “Gate of Heavenly Peace” is known for the bloody crackdown in 1989, when government forces killed, wounded and arrested thousands of protesters who were demanding democracy and a free press. The Chinese government, to this day, doesn’t acknowledge the extent of what happened. The country’s main media outlets remain state-run, and Western websites such as Facebook, Google and Instagram are banned, to keep a lid on information. China’s residents use WeChat and other internet sites, all under government scrutiny.
Before we enter Tiananmen Square, we’re cautioned about our free speech. “Please do not talk about sensitive political issues, such as the Hong Kong student events,” Angie says, referring to the ongoing demonstrations off mainland China. “Most Chinese are positive. We’re happy with our government. We don’t say negative things.”
In the square, we stare across at a portrait of Mao Tse-tung, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 right on this cement. Mao, in Western countries, is blamed for cruel policies that caused countless deaths and famine in China; here, inside his adjacent mausoleum, hundreds of people line up daily to view his embalmed corpse under glass. I’m pondering the disturbing history when suddenly four middle-age Chinese men walk up and animatedly motion for me and my husband to pose with them. We oblige. They can’t stop smiling and laughing — it’s contagious.
“Don’t worry. They are very excited because most Chinese people have never seen Westerners in person,” Angie explains. “They only see them in movies or on TV.”
Later, returning to our Beijing hotel, we motor past a decorative government-sponsored banner on the roadway extolling China’s 12 core values. In part, it reads, “Prosperity, Democracy, Civility, Harmony, Freedom.”
The next day, I scrutinize royal gem-encrusted back scratchers. Off-limits to commoners for 500 years, we amble through the exotic Forbidden City, the world’s largest palatial complex and home to 24 emperors until 1911. You can feel the ghost of the murderous Dragon Lady empress wafting through the nearly 1,000 feng shui-designed, golden-roofed, red buildings with Zen-like names such as Palace of Earthly Tranquility and Hall of Preserving Harmony. Speaking of yin-yang — amazingly, this morning’s fierce winds blew out the ugly smoggy air, and for the first time in China we see blue skies.
For the grand finale, we ride a cable car up to the well-preserved Badaling section of the gigantic Great Wall — this is where Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Obama separately strolled. I trudge along the epic landmark, imagining ancient soldiers burning wolf dung to send smoke signals warning of invaders, and ruthless Mongolian warlord Genghis Kahn busting through fortified ramparts.
China’s colossal-sized past is indeed ultra-fascinating. And I bet so will be 2020, the wealth-optimistic Chinese Year of the Rat.