Bejing and Beyond: Olympic Games inspire adventure

2602-40Hundreds of Chinese in clear slickers speed in unison on their bicycles into a sharp slanting rain along the streets of Beijing. It is the morning rush hour, and I am getting my first glimpse of the Chinese culture. Across the street in the shadow of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square. Here I see 40 or so elderly Chinese welcoming the day with the ritual movements of an ancient dance. As I enter the nearby fashionable department store, seven (not one) stylish Chinese ladies dressed in matching pink suits, bow and chant a greeting to me in chorus line fashion. A country steeped in ancient traditions, the Chinese exude ceremony in every aspect of their daily lives.

So when I heard that the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer would begin on August 8 at precisely 8:08 in 2008, I was not surprised. Perfected ceremonial symbolism prevails in China. In this case, the choice of the number “8” represents good luck. I understand it will take a lot of good luck to get a ticket to the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. However, whether you can attend the Games or not, there are many extraordinary reasons to visit China this August. The Chinese have dedicated years of preparation for the Olympics including building new hotels, constructing colossal monuments for the performing arts, and practicing their precision at putting their best foot forward.

The epicenter of the Olympic Games will be the Olympic Green where the firm of Herzog and de Meuron designed the new “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium. The eyes of the world will be watching this grand and artful structure during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

Beyond Beijing and its Forbidden City there are endless treasures to discover along the famous Silk Road and further south. The Great Wall winds it way through the countryside where Xi’an’s terracotta army and Lhasa’s Potala Palace left me spellbound. To the southeast, Shanghai’s magnificent skyscrapers glitter like jewels at night along its river. In contrast, to the west, the ancient villages along the towering cliffs and mountains of Yangtze River are still visible as I cruised its waters on a ship. Here also is the marvel of the future where the enormous Three Gorges Dam Project, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, is slated for completion.

There are many travel companies that offer package tours of these regions. Although I usually do not recommend an organized bus tour for travel, in China it is the way to see the countryside. Your guides take care of all of the details such as ticket fees and lunches, and they share with you great historical information that makes the visits to these sites more interesting. Ritz Tours gave exceptional service and our Chinese guide had a great wit making the tour even more enjoyable. Ritz Tours can be found online at Ritztours.com. They handle all of your hotel accommodations, meals, transportation, and paperwork from the moment you arrive in Beijing.

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A tour package that includes a visit to the Great Wall is a must. Until you actually stand on a portion of the Great Wall and hear the wind wailing along its side, it is hard to grasp the magnitude of this project. On the day I climbed its cragged steps, I felt a great sense of accomplishment reaching the highest point of that section of the wall. Huddled in one of its turrets were a group of monks playing exotic instruments and chanting mystical sounds. I was tempted to buy a t-shirt at the foot of the wall proclaiming “I Climbed the Great Wall,” but realized that it was in Chinese and thus, few of my American friends would be able to share the triumph of my moment.

If the Great Wall was not astounding enough, the jaw-dropping vision of Xi’an’s sea of terracotta soldiers was over the top. A vast underground world was recently dug up to reveal thousands of life-size realistic statues of soldiers in many stages of battle preparation. Emperor Xi wanted to make certain that in the afterlife he would always be protected from his enemy. One can only imagine if these figures came alive in some magical Chinese ceremony and began a march on the world.

Black pearls are harvested on the bottom of the lake surrounding Lhasa’s Potala Palace. Chinese artists created ceremonial sand writing in the gardens while we waited for a slender Chinese vessel to transport us across the water to the palace. I visited the palace’s pearl shop and selected a fine strand of natural black pearls for a good price.

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Cruising on the luxurious Victoria vessel was one of the highlights of my trip. Three days plying along the breathtaking cliffs of the mighty Yangtze River leaves one spellbound. The Yangtze is said to be the cradle of Chinese civilization and is the largest river in China. The river winds through some of China’s most spectacular scenery from the Witch Mountains to the world-famous Three Gorges. Rising in the morning to view various towering gorges along these historical shores is magnificent. When the pathways became smaller we transferred into smaller boats that were pulled by trackers along the river. Hanging coffins clung to ancient cliffs where villagers peered out to see us from their huts. Back on the main ship, the Victoria, we were wined and dined into the night and lulled to sleep by the sound of the water.

The cuisine of China is extraordinary and very exotic. It is best to take some direction from your tour guide on meals that have been modified for Americans. Even then, the food tastes different than the Chinese food you experience in the United States. Each region of China offers a different style of cuisine from very spicy to mild. A delicacy in Beijing is Peking duck, which is served in a ceremonial setting.

Bring your money for a shopping spree at the Panjiayuan Flea Market where knock offs of designer top brands are available in great quantities. Be prepared to bargain as the merchants vie for your business in each stall throughout the market. Your tour guide can arrange shipping for you.

The Olympic Games is certainly a good reason to travel to China; however, the lure of this ancient civilization and its fascinating culture is reason enough to visit over and over again.

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