China's preserved past bodes well for future tourism

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In international travel circles, the buzz on China is that the nation is sprinting toward the future. The impact dominates conversations, from the global shipping industry -- with China's imports of raw materials and exports of assembled products -- to the pros and cons of its currency policies to the rapid adjustments being made in anticipation of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The level of speculation about what China's future means for the rest of the world is bewildering.

But bewilderment at sights such as skyscrapers popping up like mushrooms in Chinese cities can be tempered by the long view -- the long view back, seeking perspective on China's past.

Hunger for understanding China's historical roots is generating interest that will support China's predicted rise to the world's No. 1 tourist destination by 2020.

Among those capitalizing on growing interest in China's turbulent yet coherent past are Paul Lam and Tim Irwin. Lam, a Chinese-American, operates several businesses involved in China, including Peregrine Travel Group. He has teamed up with Irwin, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, which has operated travel tours since 1959. He has also worked with Chinese museum directors and government officials, including the Shaanxi provincial government, to design a specialized art history tour, Treasures of the Imperial Dynasties.

Art is the future

"I believe art tours will represent a significant tourism trend in China," said Lam. "It's a comfort to know that we have survived challenges in the past -- depressions, wars, chaotic transitions -- because it reassures us that we will also survive the challenges of the present and the future. No culture demonstrates human resiliency more than China's."

Irwin concurred.

"Nowhere on Earth is the history as rich and complex as in China," he said. "The country remains a mystery to most Americans, yet it is evident it holds an extraordinary amount of interest with travelers desiring the experience of unique and lesser-known destinations."

The tour Pleasant Holidays developed with Lam begins in Beijing, and, like any tour of the capital, it would be incomplete without well-known sightseeing touchstones such as the Forbidden City, Ming Tombs and the Great Wall.

Tour participant M. Esat Kadaster, president of Newport International Travel in Newport Beach, Calif., is of Turkish descent and said his imagination was sparked by the Great Wall. 

"I could almost visualize the great hordes of Kubla Khan and Genghis Khan, who were ancestors of the Turks and the Hungarians, part of the early and lasting impact of China," he said.

More privileged offerings in the capital included dinner in China's version of Camp David, the Diao Yu Tai state guesthouse. There, presidents and prime ministers,  and precious few outside of that rarefied tier, are entertained.

But it is in Xian that the tour earns the hard-won label "unique."

"This is where Chinese culture began to coalesce centuries ago with the first dynasties," said Irwin. "This is where Chinese trade with the outside world developed, as the famed Silk Road led to Xian. The invention and progression of the Chinese people are evident at every turn."

It's also where, in March 1974, the world awakened anew to the ancient splendor of China when farmers digging a well discovered the first Terracotta Warriors. The more archaeologists dug, the more stunned they became.

When Emperor Qin Shi Huang became China's ruler at 12 years old, he began building his own tomb, a mausoleum complex almost one square mile large, using 720,000 workers and craftsmen. 

One of China's most ruthless emperors, Qin had his successes, including building the first feudal and centralized empire in China, the Qin Dynasty (221 BC to 206 BC).

But it was a bloody business, and Qin figured he would need an army to protect him in the afterlife from angry spirits.  

His craftsmen created at least 8,000 terracotta warriors with armor and weapons, including cavalry and horses, fashioned from clay. Six-and-a-half-feet tall, each figure has a unique face modeled after an actual Chinese warrior.

Archaeological exclusives

This writer tagged along on the inaugural Treasures of the Imperial Dynasties tour. Before we traveled through the countryside 22 miles outside of Xian to the Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses, we stopped in at the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeological Research. 

There we were shown artifacts, including warrior fragments, being assembled in restoration labs by German and Chinese scientists.

The process of re-creating a warrior (many were broken over 23 centuries underground) takes a year. Some objects, such as bronze swords, are X-rayed and then restored by scientists holding them with plastic gloves within airtight glass cases, watching the intricate work through a magnifying scope. 

In a vault beneath the building we saw objects not yet revealed to the public, murals reassembled from stone fragments a centimeter thick. They are captivating, whimsical images of court life.

Departing for the huge warrior complex, we carried an appreciation for the magnitude and intricacies of excavating the site. 

The exclusive nature of the tour perks Pleasant Holidays has arranged hit home as we left the area of public viewing to enter the largest warrior pit, sheltered within a building as large as an aircraft factory.

Within, thousands of warriors and horses have been reassembled in original battle formation. We moved within inches of the figures, photographing ourselves with them as if they were old chums, studying faces that conveyed personality, faces that, millennia ago, might have studied ours.

After a lunch with museum staff, we traveled to a working dig pit, not open to the public, near the foot of Qin's tomb.  Descending steep wooden stairs and scaffolds, we saw fragments of armor everywhere. 

This was the tip of a huge pit, mostly unexcavated and thought to contain armor, perhaps tens of thousands of suits. Qin's theory was that armor honored those fallen in battle but not properly buried, so the spirits of the dead would be less likely to track him down for vengeance. Lucky for Qin, he had no terracotta lawyers.

The museum is visited by more than 2 million people a year, nearly a quarter of them foreigners. It's hard to imagine what the numbers will be after the tomb is opened and its contents -- said to include pearls embedded in the ceiling to represent stars and rivers and lakes made of mercury -- are incorporated into the museum. 

The following day found us at the Xian Municipal Institute of Archeological Research, where we entered a special room, sat around a large table and put on gloves. 

Precious objects

Then, out from a vault came treasures that fired a sense of wonder as we passed them around, such as an ornate bronze wine vessel and heavy, fist-sized lumps of gold etched with dragon images. 

More fragile objects, such as a bronze mirror that reflected an emperor's image 4,000 years ago, raised anxiety levels. A pair of white jade pigs, three millennia old, balanced in each hand, noticeably quickened the pulse.

Archaeologist and tour participant Engin Kadaster, wife and colleague of Esat, said a highlight of the tour was "to hold artifacts that were thousands of years old in our hands as we admired the art and skilled workmanship of the ancient Chinese."

Another tour exclusive took us into a restricted treasure vault beneath the Shaanxi Provincial Historical Museum, to a collection of restored Tang Dynasty paintings. Access has been restricted to world leaders, including former President Bill Clinton.

Xian offered up my fellow travelers' favorite attractions. One sight that imparted the continuity of Chinese culture was the Forest of Steles, founded in 1087. Now a museum complex, it houses over 3,000 steles, or stones, on which are etched the most critical calligraphy and teachings of their eras, including that of Confucius. 

We each chose a stele for a rubbing -- which involved pounding damp paper with an inked mallet and then fanning it to dry -- to be certified and taken home. 

One fellow traveler, C.K. Tseng, a spry Chinese-American octogenarian, steered me to a stele written in 1842 by a court official, Lin Zexu, who had burned a fortune in opium (20,000 boxes, in fact) that the British were forcing on Chinese peasants, igniting the Opium Wars. 

Losing court favor, Lin Zexu was exiled to another city located over Huashan Mountain. He wrote a poetic account of his feelings on a stele as he reached the mountain.

"Here was a man who was incorruptible, who stood for principle," said Tseng. "Few know of him, but he's one of the giants."

I made the rubbing. Beaming, Tseng supervised, fanning my paper impression until it dried enough to pull off the stone. It's now one of my most treasured possessions.

Promoting China

On the way to Xian's airport, we experienced a surprise. We were the first to see a new museum built underground over the mausoleum of Emperor Jingdi of the Han Dynasty, who ruled from 188 to 156 BC. 

The city of Shanghai, where the Treasures tour finished, is not all glistening chrome and glass surrounding a nervous historic center, the Bund. Despite the modern veneer, it also lends insights into the past. 

Those included the centuries-old Yu Garden, showcasing Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture; the Jade Buddha Temple; and the spectacular Shanghai Museum, with treasures dating from the Neolithic Age. 

Pleasant Holidays also can fashion alternative itineraries coupling Xian and Shanghai with other Asian destinations.  

Lam said he remains dedicated to helping "the people of the U.S. better appreciate the thousands of years of Chinese culture."

Pleasant Holidays offers two Treasures of the Imperial Dynasties itineraries. The four-night, land-only tour begins at $1,909 per person, double, and includes four nights in a five-star hotel, three days touring Xian and a Tang Dynasty dinner show.

A 12-night air-inclusive itinerary starts at $5,235 per person, double, and includes roundtrip air from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and other gateways; intra-China air; three nights in Beijing; four nights in Xian; two nights in Shanghai; and three nights in Hong Kong, all at five-star hotels.

Guests enjoy full-day tours of Beijing, the Great Wall, Ming Tombs and Shanghai plus a half-day tour of Hong Kong Island.

Prices are good until Feb. 17. Visit PleasantAgent.com or call (800) 448-3333.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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