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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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