1: Join tour Beijing China’s capital and political and cultural centre, indeed all clocks in this vast country are set by Beijing time, despite the westernmost regions being some 5000kms away. The city has been the capital for most of the period since Kublai Khan made it the centre of his mighty Asian Empire in the late 1200s.
2: Visit the Great Wall at Mutianyu snakes from the east coast to the Gobi Desert, stretching for over 5,000 kilometres across five provinces and two autonomous regions. Begun in the 3rd century BC by Qin Shi Huangdi, it was originally designed to keep out the barbarian tribes that raided across the northern boundaries of the empire, later being strengthened and fortified in an attempt to keep out the mongol armies of Ghengis Khan. Despised for much of it’s life as a symbol of tyranny and oppression, the Wall exacted a heavy toll in both resources and lives, with thousands of conscripted workers labouring on the project over the centuries, many of them ending their days buried in its brick and stone ramparts. This morning we drive some 90km north of the city, to a particularly well preserved section of the Great Wall at Mutianyu, where 2 kilometres of restored grandeur gives us something of the idea of this immense structure in all its grandiose glory. Meandering across an undulating landscape of folded hills, the wall at Mutianyu was started by the Northern Dynasties during the 6th century, with much of the restoration that we can see today being completed during the reign of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Nearly 8 metres high and up to 5 metres thick, the wall provided a formidable barrier along the northern edge of the empire and its 22 watchtowers and enhanced defensive features indicate that this section was of particular importance. These magnificent parapets cross a quite breathtaking landscape of verdant hills out towards the purple hills in the distance, evoking a sense of wonder in anyone who sees this remarkable structure. From here we return to the city for our second night in Beijing. This evening there may be the opportunity to experience the unique atmosphere of a traditional Beijing Opera performance or acrobatic display.
3: Overnight train to Xian This morning we begin with a drive to the impressive expanse of Tiananmen Square, the heart of Beijing, covering some 40 hectares and enclosed on all sides by memorials to the past and present. After visiting the square we cross to the magnificent Forbidden City, the one-time home of the Ming and the Manchu (Qing) emperors and a treasure trove of eastern wares. So named because for 500 years it was off limits to all but a privileged few, the Forbidden City is the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings in China, covering an area of some 720,000 square metres and containing 800 buildings. Once we have finished our tour the rest of the day, before we depart for the railway station later this evening, is free to indulge as you wish, perhaps taking the opportunity to explore a little more of Beijing’s heart. You may wish to visit the Temple of Heaven, to many the high point of Ming architecture, conceived as the meeting point of heaven and earth and for 500 years the heart of imperial ceremony and symbolism. Then there are the numerous parks and markets, selling everything from live frogs to deep fried bluebottles and scorpions!
4: Late AM city tour of Xian. PM free The capital of China’s Shaanxi province, Xian (Chang’an) served as the Imperial Capital for 11 dynasties and was the starting point of the Silk Road between Central Asia and Europe. This was the beginning of a journey that spanned an incredible diversity of cultures and landscapes, as goods from China made their way across mountains and deserts, into the exotic kingdoms of Asia and the Indian subcontinent and then into the unknown lands of the west. This morning we have a late morning tour of the city, taking in some of its major sights, such as the Tang Dynasty Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a 64 metre high structure that supplies some quite superb views out across the city. We also view the Bell and Drum Towers (outside only) and the intimate network of alleys and streets that make up the engaging Muslim Quarter. Said to be descendents of 8th century Arab soldiers, the occupants of these rambling quarters belong to Xian’s Hui minority people and during our walk we will see the impressive Great Mosque, the largest in China. The rest of the day is free to continue exploring as you wish, perhaps taking in the expansive delights of the Shaanxi National Museum, where you will find an impressive collection of artefacts that span a million years of Chinese history, including Buddhist sculptures from the 5th century, Confucian texts from the Tang dynasty and a number of remarkable steles, including one portraying a map of Chang’an at the height of its power.
5: Visit Terracotta Warriors; overnight train to Lanzhou Today we visit one of the highlights of not only Xian, but China itself – the magnificent Terracotta Warriors and Horses who guard the Qin Shi Huangdi Tomb. Considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the last century, there are literally thousands of life-size warriors, dating from 200BC, guarding the tomb of the first emperor of a unified China. Each figure, measuring approximately 1.8 metres in height, was individually crafted to represent, some say, actual members of the Imperial Guard. When they were discovered in 1974 the warriors were armed with actual bows, crossbows, swords and spears, many of them still as sharp as they had been when they were buried. We will visit the three excavated pits that hold this incredible army, viewing an astonishing array of bowmen, charioteers and the incredible sight of a thousand soldiers lined up in battle formation before the tomb of the emperor. Our visit with a local guide will also include a video presentation and the spectacular bronze chariot exhibition, which features two superbly preserved half sized representation of the Emperor’s chariot and that of the Imperial Fleet leader. Returning to Xian this afternoon we transfer to the railway station for the overnight train to Lanzhou.
6: Arrive Lanzhou. River trip to Bingling Si grottoes Arriving early this morning into the capital of Gansu Province, after a chance to get some breakfast, we head off by bus to Yongjing. Here we board ‘fast’ boats to travel along the spectacular scenery of the Yellow River to Bingling Si where, cut into the sheer cliffs above a tributary of the river, are 183 ancient Buddhist caves. Passing a timeless landscape of fishermen and rice paddies we enter a towering gorge, where the churning of the waters below us illustrate perfectly the river’s somewhat descriptive moniker (it is said that the Yellow River transports some 35 kilos of silt in each cubic metre of water, which results in its dirty appearance). The caves at Bingling Si are amongst the earliest Buddhist monuments in China and, with most of the sculptures being in incredibly good condition, are a quite extraordinary collection of Buddhist art. We will see a number of particularly impressive cave paintings as we explore the site, many of them dating from the Tang, Song and Ming Dynasties, as well as the giant seated Buddha – at 27 metres in height a striking centrepiece to the cave system. Heading back to Yongjing and Lanzhou later this afternoon there may be some free time to explore something more of this once important trading centre along the great Silk Road (protecting the head of the Hexi Corridor this was the main crossing point for caravans negotiating the fierce currents of the Yellow River).
7: Drive to Xiahe As we head south from Lanzhou today we journey through a region of outstanding natural beauty, mountainous and green and filled with a rich diversity of ethnic cultures. These landscapes harbour Dongxiang and Hui, Bao’an and Sala, ethnic groups whose ancestry can boast a rich mix of Mongol, Muslim and Buddhist influences. We travel via the town of Linxia, a strongly Islamic enclave filled with a number of mosques that seem to have weathered the excesses of the Cultural Revolution amazingly well. We will have opportunities during our drive to stop and explore something of the Hui and Tibetan cultures as we make our way up towards the remote setting of Xiahe. Set on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, amongst the verdant hills of southern Gansu, Xiahe is the site of the magnificent Tibetan monastery of Labrang, the most important of its kind outside Tibet. A major pilgrimage centre for Tibetans, this monastery is one of six important sites for the Gelugpa sect (Yellow Hat), making the town a constant and ever changing centre for a wealth of brightly dressed monks, prostrating Tibetans and passing nomadic herdsmen.
8: Visit Labrang Monastery, Sangke Village and grasslands With a full day to explore more of this fascinating town we head for the Labrang Monastery this morning, where we hope to enjoy a guided tour of its remarkable interiors in the company of a resident monk. Unlike its other Chinese counterpart of Ta’er Si, located in Qinghai Province (the remaining four Gelugpa sites are located in Tibet), Labrang is very much a part of the town, with no real wall dividing the buildings of the monastery from those of the rest of the town. Founded in the early years of the 18th century, the Monastery has managed to survive atrocities and persecution, closure and destruction since its inception. Today it houses some 2000 monks (about half its original number) and its present Jiemuyang (Living Buddha) is the sixth reincarnation of its founder and Tibetan Buddhism’s third most important individual - after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. We have plenty of time this morning to wander through the temples and prayer halls, discovering something of the history and traditions of the sect. We may also be able to see the unusual statuary in the Hall of Buttered Sculpture, containing a collection of brightly painted tableaux made from yak butter and depicting a series of legends from Tibetan and Buddhist lore. Later this afternoon we will drive out into the surrounding countryside, to visit a local village and enjoy a short walk through the lush Sangke grasslands, before making our way back to our hotel.
9: Drive to Tongren and visit Long Wu Monastery Heading north this morning we traverse the vast vistas of the Ganjia Grasslands as we begin our journey towards Tongren in northeastern Guizhou. En route we will take the time to stop at some of the local villages and temples that nestle amongst these remote landscapes. We will also stop later this afternoon at the Long Wu Monastery, the largest in the entire Gannan area and originally constructed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Only recently opened to the public, the monastery belongs to the Gelugpa sect. Our final destination for today is the town of Tongren, situated besides the Jin River close to the border with neighbouring Hunan. One of the most important Tibetan cultural centres in the east of the country, the town’s relative isolation amongst the steep valleys of the mountain landscapes, has ensured that it has retained something of its original culture, remaining refreshingly untainted by the outside world.
10: Drive to Xining via Wutun Si Monastery This morning we visit the nearby monastery of Wutun Si, a renowned centre for Tibetan Regong-art set up in the 16th century. Thangka paintings are considered to be the highest form of Tibetan art; an exceptional combination of Buddhist culture and religious practice that culminates in incredibly detailed and painstakingly executed works of art. We have a chance this morning to see for ourselves some of the incredible dedication that goes into the production of these religious masterpieces, some of which can take up to a year to complete. From here we continue west, towards Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai Province. Situated right in the middle of China, on the extreme edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the city sits between the barren plateau and the stark dominant mountains that rise up behind it. Important to the Han since the 16th century, this remote outpost on the southern extremes of the Silk Road is interesting in no small part due to the incredible variety of minorities that live here. Aside from the Han the city is home to numbers of Hui Muslims and Tibetans, affording it an eclectic vibrancy strangely out of sorts with its somewhat unassuming position.
11: Visit Ta’er Si Monastery; Qinghai-Tibet railway to Lhasa As with Labrang, Ta’er Monastery is one of the most important Tibetan Iamaseries in all of China. Set on the edge of a surprisingly fertile valley, this walled monastery is an imposing sight, attracting pilgrims from all over China, as well as from Tibet itself and Mongolia. Built in 1560 in honour of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, it contains several beautifully decorated temples and prayer halls and is still very much a working monastery with over 600 lamas in residence. We visit some of the remarkable treasures of this beautiful monastery, including the superb Great Hall with its embroidered tapestries and carpeted pillars. After our visit we return to Xining, where we visit its Dongguan Mosque, a distinctly Chinese structure that seems to lack any evidence whatsoever of an Arabic hand. We then transfer to the train station for the overnight train to Lhasa.
12: Train across Tibet, arrive Lhasa late evening The Qinghai-Tibet railway is the world’s highest and one of the most truly groundbreaking train journeys on the planet. We spend today travelling across a landscape of breathtaking beauty and diversity, crossing elevated bridges and open steppes against a stunning backdrop of towering snow capped peaks. Our journey from Xining takes us west, towards the town of Golmud, where we pick up the newest part of the line. Inaugurated in 2006, the Golmud-Lhasa section of track opens up the last of China’s mainland provinces to the Tibet Autonomous Region. This is a journey of true superlatives and a statistician’s dream, as we pass over the world’s highest piece of track at Tangula Pass (5,072m) and negotiate its highest tunnel (Fenghoushan 4,905m). Indeed over 80% of the Golmud-Lhasa section of our journey is built above 4,000m, with over half of it laid across a terrain of permafrost. Elevated bridges had to be built to carry the train across this fragile landscape, their foundations buried deep into the earth and a regular supply of liquid nitrogen and cold nitrogen gas being pumped into hollow pipes to keep the ground frozen. The trains themselves have been specially designed and built to withstand the extremes in temperatures and altitude and include regulated oxygen to cater for the thinner air and UV filters on the windows to cut down on the increased strength of the sun at these altitudes. So sit back and enjoy one of the planet’s most remarkable rail journeys, as we pass across the Tibetan Plateau towards Lhasa. We arrive in the Tibetan capital later this evening and transfer to our hotel.
13: Visit Jokhang, Ani Tsangkang Nunnery & Sera Monastery A vibrant mix of Tibetan tradition and Chinese enterprise, Lhasa is set within a ring of bare mountains that are covered in a blanket of snow in the winter, its valley carved by the gushing waters of the Kyi Chu (the Happy River), one of the headwaters of the mighty Indian Brahmaputra. For most of the year the sky above the city is a deep intense blue, all around the city weeping willows wave over tiny streams and lakes, and peach trees blossom in the crisp dry air. This morning we begin our exploration of this remarkable city with a visit to the famous Jokhang Temple, one of the oldest and most sacred shrines in the country and an object of circumambulation by devoted pilgrims. This is Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest temple, built in the 7th century by King Songtsen Gampo and legend has it that it was only constructed after the completion of a further 12 monasteries sited around the country to supress a giant demon whose heart beat beneath Lhasa itself. We will also visit the Ani Tsangkung Nunnery, the only active nunnery in Lhasa, with some hundred nuns in residence, and see the monastic university of Sera, where the monks practice philosophical debates in the Monastery garden and Gregorian - style ritual chanting in the assembly halls. We will hopefully be able to witness something of these unique debates before we drive back to Lhasa.
14: AM Potala Palace. PM free in Lhasa Today’s sightseeing takes us to the city’s most iconic structure, the incredible Potala Palace, the former seat of the Dalai Lamas, where the genius of Tibetan architecture finds true expression in the glistening white walls that seem to soar directly from every stone and rock face. Spread across thirteen stories the Palace complex took some 50 years to build, employing the skills and labours of something in the region of 8500 builders and artisans. The structure itself consists of two main constructions, the White Palace, which constitutes the main parliamentary building, and the central Red Palace. Both these buildings date from the 17th century, built during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama, although an original palace was first constructed on this site in the 7th century, during the reign of King Songsten Gampo, the same monarch responsible for the building of the Jokhang Temple. During its chequered career the Potala Palace has served a number of roles, from fortress and monastery, to the residence of the Dalai Lama. The present (fourteenth) Dalai Lama, whose title has been carried through the centuries by an unbroken lineage of reincarnations, now lives in exile in India. This afternoon has been left free for you to explore more of Lhasa at your leisure, perhaps taking a stroll around the colourful stalls and labyrinthine streets of the Barkhor district, where its bustling market can offer a range of goods that would test the staying power of even the most avid shopper, whilst all around the scene is enhanced by the enigmatic sight of traditionally attired pilgrims and chanting monks. Those in need of another monastic fix may like to visit the nearby Drepung, once the largest of its kind on the planet and a quite exceptional architectural delight, with some spectacular views out across the Kyichu Valley.
15: Optional morning excursion to Ganden Monastery. PM visit Norbulingka After breakfast this morning there is the option to visit the imposing grandeur of the Ganden Monastery, perched at the top of a valley to the northeast of the city. Extensively restored and home to around 450 monks, Ganden belongs to the Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect whose, spiritual leader is his holiness the Dalai Lama. This has brought the monastery a good deal of unwanted attention from the Chinese over the years and it was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution when Red Guards destroyed much of the original complex and plundered the gold and silver chorten that contained the body of the sect’s founder Tsongkhapa. The centrepiece of the complex is the magnificent Serdung Lhakhang, whilst the Sertrikhang farther up the hill houses the golden throne of Tsongkhapa. Interestingly the bag that presently sits on the throne contains the yellow hat of the present Dalai Lama. Later this afternoon we visit the old Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama at Norbulingka, the traditional summer residence since the 7th Dalai Lama and the place from which the present exiled reincarnation fled in 1959.
16: AM free, PM fly to Beijing This afternoon we transfer to the airport for our flight back to Beijing. We plan to spend this night in a hotel near to the airport in Beijing17: Beijing Our tour ends this morning after breakfast.
prices based on double occupancy land only and vary on departure dates, no air is included
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