TransIndus Far East Tailor-Made Holidays e-Brochure

Tailor-made Ch i na | Japan | South Korea | Ta iwan | Mongo l i a | Cent ra l As i a Far East

Ta i l o r - m a d e h o l i d a y s b y T r a n s I n d u s

Welcome to TransIndus

I t seems barely a week goes by without some programme about the Far East dominating the airwaves these days. Michael Wood’s dazzling overview of Chinese history, live coverage of the New Year celebrations from Harbin and Hong Kong, and a fabulous series from the BBC on China’s wildlife have all served to remind us how diverse this part of the world is, and what great potential it holds for travellers. Which is why we at TransIndus felt it high time we join the fray and bring our brochure for the region up to date, showcasing some of the new and exciting destinations that have opened up since we published our last one. To which end, we’ve spent the past few months setting down accounts of the places we’ve found most compelling in our own recent travels, and searching for photographs to do them justice. The result, as we hope you’ll agree, is something to savour. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or an old hand, the following pages are sure to introduce you to sights you’ll dream of travelling to, amazing landscapes you’ll want to experience for yourself and people whose ways of life will challenge your notions of ‘normal’! For in spite of all their modernity, the societies of the Far East remain profoundly different from our own, in many and unexpected ways. I’ll never forget the first time I visited a market in Sichuan, for example, where I failed to recognize

a single vegetable on sale. Nor the goosebumps I felt when I came across a traditional Japanese wedding party at a park in Tokyo – the silk kimono and white face of the bride glowing against a futuristic backdrop of skyscrapers. The other-worldy atmosphere of a Taoist mountain shrine; the fabulous intricacy of a mosaic-encrusted Timurid dome rising from the midst of a Silk Road city; and the elegant simplicity of a wooden farmstead in the hills of South Korea. In Europe, such treasures would be vestiges of a dimly remembered past. But in the East, they’re part of living traditions – with astonishingly ancient roots. Sharing such discoveries and translating them into enjoyable holidays for our guests are among the most enriching aspects of our job. At TransIndus we take great pride in our expertise. Our consultants have all lived, worked and travelled extensively in their specialist countries and return regularly to refresh their knowledge. We also place great importance on our standards of personal care and attention to detail – qualities that have repeatedly made us an award-winning travel company. We hope you’ll agree this passion shines through the writing and photography presented in our Far East brochure, and that they will serve to inspire your own unique journeys through these astonishing countries over the coming years.

Amrit Singh Managing Director, TransIndus

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The Far East

F or centuries, a combination of unforgiving geography and mistrust of foreigners among its Emperors meant that eastern Asia was almost entirely unknown to Europeans – a source of exquisite silks, ceramics and tea, but a true Terra Incognita, visited by only a handful of intrepid explorer- merchants since the time of Marco Polo in the 13th century. Now, of course, it’s all different. The great capitals of imperial China, Japan’s widely scattered archipelago, and even the most far-flung outposts of the Silk Route may be reached in a day’s journey from London. And when you arrive, you’ll find clean, comfortable hotels awaiting you, quality roads connecting the major sights and state-of-the-art vehicles to travel in. You’ll also, in all likelihood, encounter many fellow travellers from the Far East itself. Spurred by the double-digit growth of past decades, there has been an explosion of regional tourism within China and the wider region. Which has thrown up new challenges. Now, more than ever, the key to putting together an enjoyable itinerary depends on finding places that are a little off the beaten track, where you can sidestep the crowds and relax in a tranquil location, visiting the mainstream sights on day trips. Authentic Asia | In the following pages, you’ll find dozens of great discoveries we’ve made where it’s possible to do just that. From camel markets on the sand-blown fringes of the Gobi Desert, to homely ryokan inns with outdoor hot tubs in rural Japan, TransIndus researchers have scoured the length and breadth of the Far East to offer the most rewarding experiences the region has to offer. Whatever your time frame

or budget, our consultants will be able to devise a trip full of variety and inspiration that really gets under the skin of your chosen destination. We begin our brochure with China, stretching from the Great Wall and Terracotta Army of Xi’an to the pandas and distant snow peaks of Yunnan. Next up come the highlights of Japan, a country whose determination to embrace the ways of the West predated that of its neighbours, yet whose adherence to its own traditional culture remains more resolute than anywhere else in the Far East. Then we move on to South Korea and Taiwan, two countries that are better known for their remarkable post-war economic metamorphosis, but which between them hold some of the finest landscapes and exotic cultural experiences in the Far East. Distant Frontiers | Finally, we follow the old Silk Routes north and west across the grasslands of Mongolia, across the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts and over the snow-capped Tianshan mountains into Kyrgyzstan, whose wild landscapes are sprinkled in summer with the camps of nomadic herders. Pressing through the Fergana Valley into Uzbekistan, we then reach the most distant point on the TransIndus tour map – the splendid oasis cities of the Timurid dynasty, whose ethereal mosques and tombs inspired the architects of Mughal India. Putting this brochure together has rekindled some wonderful travel memories for us. We hope, in turn, that the following pages will inspire you to experience the wonders of the Far East and Central Asia for yourself. They’re probably not as far away as you think!

亞洲東部

Contents

Welcome to TransIndus Introduction to The Far East Why TransIndus Michael Wood's China China Tibet Family Travel Japan

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South Korea Taiwan Mongolia The Silk Road Central Asia Uzbekistan Kyrgyzstan How to Book

112 – 121 122 – 131 132 – 141 142 – 143 144 – 161 145 – 151 152 – 157 162 – 163

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Why TransIndus?

Among the UK’s largest and most successful operators of tailor-made tours to Asia, TransIndus features twenty-four different countries in the continent. With decades of experience designing journeys and a wealth of hard-won travel knowledge and local contacts to draw on, we are able to create trips of the highest possible quality, featuring the most desirable destinations and memorable activities. This expertise, backed by gold-standard customer service, has ensured our company consistently generates satisfaction ratings of 99%. Over half our clients travel more than once with us, or else have been referred by family, friends or colleagues. ’Your journey. Our expertise.’ | Our goal is simple: to devise holidays that are both relaxing and culturally stimulating, and perfectly tailored for your needs. All TransIndus teammembers travel regularly to their specialist regions to keep abreast of the latest developments, and are passionate about sharing their discoveries. If a beautiful new heritage-boutique hotel opens in an off-track location, they’ll know if it’s worth staying there and which its best rooms are. If a particular coastal resort has grown too crowded, they’ll be able to suggest a lesser frequented alternative, and the best monuments, nature sanctuaries and lunch stops to pause at en route. Or if you want to spend a few days river cruising, they’ll know which of the boats offer the most varied routes and best value for your budget. Sound Advice | Throughout, ‘authenticity’ is our watchword. We want our clients to enjoy not just a revitalizing, inspirational holiday, but return home feeling that they have had a genuine insight into the countries visited. We achieve this by recommending destinations that may not feature in guidebooks, and sidestepping the frequently visited places in favour of lesser known gems. Whether you’re dreaming of a cultural trip highlighting historic monuments and the arts, or a nature-based one with wildlife as its focus, you will find us passionate about our destinations and committed to offering you quality at every stage of your journey.

Our customers place great value on their holidays, often spending considerable time and effort researching destinations and the kinds of activities on offer. We will be with you every step of the way on this journey, helping you make the best choices at planning stage, and ensuring things run smoothly while you’re away. It all starts with an informal chat – either over the phone, or face-to-face at our London office – in which we’ll gain a sense of your precise requirements. We’ll then put together an itinerary, taking into account how long you’d like to spend away, your aspirations and what your budget is. This itinerary will then be refined over the course of further conversations until you’re completely happy with every detail of your trip. Flexibility | Travelling tailor-made instead of opting for an off-the-peg tour gives you much greater flexibility. Although every country and sub-region has its unmissable highlights, there’s rarely a single route around them. You may have specific interests which you’d like to pursue, or a list of less well- known destinations that you’d like to include. This is where our expertise comes in: having explored each destination in depth, often several times over, our consultants will be able to suggest the best order in which to visit them, as well as the most rewarding excursions and hotels. Smooth Travel | We’ll also discuss meal plans with you, and make all your transport arrangements in advance. Chauffeur driven, air-conditioned cars tend to be our preferred option for most countries in the Far East (with the exception of Japan, whose public transport system offers exceptional comfort and value for money), as they allow you to make more frequent TransIndus tailor-made holidays

stops along the way – though you may well need to add some domestic flights to cover longer distances. One of our expert, English-speaking guides will also be assigned to you for day trips to historic and religious sites, markets and other destinations where in-depth local knowledge is desirable. A critical element we take care of, of course, is your international flight. Experience has shown us the best routings, stopovers and departure times for hubs across the Far East and Central Asia, and we’ll be able to suggest the most comfortable, time-saving option for you, whether you’re travelling accommodation is to one’s overall enjoyment of a country, which is why we go to great lengths to find the loveliest hotels and guest houses in all of our destinations. Landmark luxury hotels, particularly those with a colonial-era pedigree, are perennial favourites among our clients, but we also favour smaller heritage and boutique properties where greater emphasis is placed on traditional architecture and interior design, and where the setting of the hotel itself is central to its appeal. Throughout this brochure, we’ve highlighted examples of hotels and guest houses that stand out from the crowd, offer exceptional service and represent great value for money. A fuller rundown of our preferred accommodation options appears on our website, and of course, your TransIndus holiday designer will know of other commendable places that may have opened more recently in your chosen destination. alone, as a couple or in a larger family group with children. Special Places to Stay | TransIndus understands how important

All our clients are financially protected. When booking with TransIndus, you can rest assured that, should your travel arrangements be disrupted by circumstances beyond your control, you’ll be fully refunded. Flight-inclusive holidays are covered by our Air Travel Organiser’s License (ATOL 3429), granted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), while those without flights are protected by our financial bond with the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA V0709). In the unlikely event of an emergency, the CAA and ABTA ensure you will not be stranded abroad. And if you haven’t already left the UK, they’ll also make sure your money is refunded fully. In addition, we are proud members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), whose ‘Client’s Charter’ assures you of the highest standards of service. Financial Protection: Peace of Mind

ABTA V0705

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Michael Wood: “My Favourite Places in China” The historian, author, broadcaster and long-time Sinophile shares his top travel tips for a country he first visited over three decades ago . . .

with packloads of manuscripts and began his great translation programme. Take a bike round the top of the Ming walls, and explore the backstreets and the Muslim food markets. Luoyang | The picturesque city of Luoyang is a long-time favourite of mine, but you may need to hurry: last time I was there, there were plans to ‘restore’ its Old Town – one of the best in China. In the centre of the modern city is an amazing underground museum built over recently discovered chariot burials. Nearby are the Longmen Caves at the end of the Silk Road, with their giant Buddhas, and the superb precinct of the White Horse Pagoda. Kashgar | The Silk Road has its own stories: a world away from Beijing (literally: it takes seven hours to fly to Kashgar!). The city has boomed since I first saw it in 1984, but the old quarter is still a picturesque Central Asian crossroads, with mosques and mansions, and the legendary Sunday market. Combine with a stopover in Turfan to see ruined desert cities, the caves of Beziklik, and the Flaming Mountains. Kaifeng | Finally back to the Yellow River Plain, the heartland of Chinese civilisation: the “Middle Land” (Zhongguo) which gives China its name in Chinese. I have always liked Kaifeng, an out of the way provincial place when I first stayed thirty years ago, but the greatest city in the world a thousand years ago in the Song Renaissance. Reachable in a day trip from Luoyang, the city still has its walls; on the main street is the Buddhist Xiangguo temple with its leafy courtyards; its temple orchestra reassembled and playing again: they even do excellent vegetarian lunches! But the old city is the most fun: in its warren of alleys are Christian churches, all-women mosques (with women imams!) and even China’s last Jewish community. My only fear: the planners will soon start knocking down Kaifeng’s delightful warren of real-life crumbling alleys to make a spanking new Heritage tourist site.

I first got hooked on China in my teens reading Penguin translations of Chinese poetry, which opened up a world I’d never dreamed of. I first went there in the 1980s and still remember the hospitality and sociability of the people and that has not changed, though much else has! Here are the places we especially enjoyed during the filming of the BBC series, The Story of China . Beijing | With the smog alerts of recent years, you may well pale at the thought of holidaying here – but Beijing is still one of the world’s greatest historic cities. There are still so many interesting nooks and crannies, and the Altar of Heaven is one of the world’s great sites. Beyond the city are amazing things too: the Ming tombs, the Great Wall, the Palace at Jehol, the list is endless. And after your long day’s sightseeing, how about a cup of hot chocolate by the lakeside in the Bohemian Houhai quarter, where young Chinese folk singers strum their songs of love. Suzhou | ‘There are two Paradises on Earth’ the proverb runs, ‘Suzhou and Hangzhou.’ So why not get them both on one trip? Just inland from Shanghai (fascinating itself of course), you can stay in Suzhou in a converted Ming merchant’s house. The old city of canals and alleys is still a delightful place with its pagodas and exquisite gardens, not to mention its restaurants and silk shops. Xidi and Hongcun | A train journey inland from Shanghai is the fabulous landscape of Huangshan, the loveliest of China’s sacred mountains. You can stay in ancient houses in the heritage villages of Xidi and Hongcun; Tangyue has a very nice new hotel run by the Bao Family. Xi’an | Some travellers are put off by Xi’an, which is a very busy city these days, but still a fascinating one. The Terracotta Army, of course, is a must. But there’s also the Wild Goose Pagoda where the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang came back from India

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China C ut off from the rest of Asia by the Russian steppes to the north and the Himalayas to the south, China has spent literally thousands of years refining and innovating its ancient cultures. Today’s rush for modernity may seem to replicate the style of the west, but it is being conducted in a manner that is unmistakably Chinese – all of which makes travelling in this vast country a uniquely compelling experience. Undiminished by the economic revolution taking place around them, China’s Big Five sights – the Great Wall, Forbidden City in Beijing, Terracotta Army, Yangtze Gorges and limestone mountains around Guilin and Yangshuo – all retain their timeless allure. For the most vivid taste of old China, however, we recommend visiting smaller, less frequented destinations between the headline locations or, time permitting, venturing to the country’s far southern and western provinces, whose rural heartlands preserve architecture and ways of life little altered since the Ming and Qing eras.

Highlights of China The Great Wall | Undulating across the northern border of China, the chain of defences known as ‘the Long Wall of a Thousand Li’ form as striking a spectacle today as they did 2,000 years ago. Harbin Ice Festival | Held every January in the far northeast of China, Harbin’s world-famous ice festival is an over-the-top, totally irresistible way of beating those winter blues. Think Disneyland, but colder!

Xi'an and the Terracotta Warriors | Travel by bullet train to Xi'an, jumping-off place for the famous Terracotta Army, created in 210 BC to guard the grave of the first Chinese Emperor. Leshan Giant Buddha | Carved from a salmon-coloured cliff face, this colossal statue of Maitreya (the Buddha to Come) dates from the Tang Dynasty (8th century) and is the largest stone Buddha in the world.

Li River Cruise | Passing through a range of peaks, the boat trip between Guilin and Yangshuo on the limpid Li River takes you through a landscape of soaring pinnacles and shimmering rice paddies. Pandas, Chengdu | Watch the world’s cutest animals, including adorable baby bears cavorting around their playground, at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in the city of Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

‘Dragon’s Backbone’ Rice Terraces | In the district of

Longsheng, entire mountainsides have been worked into elegantly curved rice terraces resembling the scales of a giant dragon. Mogao Caves, Dunhuang | This ensemble of rock-cut caves, chiselled from sandstone and Loess cliffs, close to the northern Silk Road, is the jewel in the crown of China’s Buddhist complexes. Be inspired For help planning your perfect holiday, contact us at the Old Fire Station, Ealing, London. Tel: 020 8566 3739 Web: www.transindus.com

Travel Information Time zone: UTC+8 hours Flying time: 9.30 hours Currency: Renminbi Capital: Beijing

When to go Month

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Temperature °C -4 -6 5 14 20 25 26 25 20 13 4 -2 Rainfall mm 4 5 8 17 35 78 243 141 58 16 11 3 Best to travel l l l ll ll l l l ll ll l l ll The best time to travel l A good time to travel l Low season

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Temple of Heaven

The ‘Forbidden City’

Widely regarded as Beijing’s most exquisite building, the Temple of Heaven marked the spiritual heart of Imperial China in the early 15th century. Each year on the summer solstice, the emperor would perform an elaborate ritual here to ensure the success of the harvest. Reflecting its ceremonial significance, the whole complex was set out according to principles of Confucian sacred geometry, with the circular, wooden, polychrome ‘Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests’ as its focal point. Of equal fascination for visitors are the colonnaded hallways and parkland surrounding the temple complex, where local people gather to play the double-stringed erhu, sing folk songs and paint Mandarin calligraphy with long brushes on the dusty paving stones.

Comprising over 800 buildings ranged around a series of vast paved courtyards, Beijing’s Gugong, or ‘Imperial Palace’, formed the nerve centre of the Ming and Qing empires. For the five centuries during which it was in use, this magnificent complex lay off-limits to ordinary citizens, whence its nickname, ‘the Forbidden City’. Today, the palace gates are open to all and the thousands of royal chambers within host a splendid museum. Approach from the south via Tiananmen Square, then cross the wide moat to enter the Wumen (‘Meridian’) Gate, where Chairman Mao first proclaimed the creation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Inside, the palace’s many chambers and walkways hold displays of priceless ceramics, calligraphy, weapons, ceremonial robes and paintings. At the core of the palace lie the three Great Halls, where the emperors used to preside over important state occasions and inspect their troops, flanked by guards of Burmese elephants. Crowds of up to 100,000 subjects used to gather in the mighty courtyards before them, kow-towing nine times when their ruler took his place on the ornate Dragon Throne. Beyond the walls to the north, the rockeries, pavilions and cypress trees of the Imperial Gardens provide a serene counterpoint to the vast structures and open spaces of the palace proper.

Beijing

Shichahai Shadow Art Performance Hotel

We love this pint-sized, great value boutique hotel buried deep in the narrowest hutong blocks of old Beijing. Close to the breezy Imperial Lakes, it offers a cosy, stylish, convenient base from which to explore the city, with sleek contemporary interiors of wood and stone inflected with traditional Ming motifs. Its USP, though, is the little gabled stage in the inner courtyard, where performances of old-world shadow puppetry are held each evening – a cultural delight. China was where this ancient form of story telling originated, though it has almost died out elsewhere in the country.

W ith its horizons of tower cranes and smog-shrouded skyscrapers, Beijing is a city which has totally reinvented itself in less than a generation, and not without growing pains. At the same time, the high-octane Chinese capital has managed to maintain strong links with its more traditional past. From the awe-inspiring palaces of the Ming emperors, to the gleaming glass-and-steel creations of the Olympic Park and iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing encompasses more than five centuries of ceaseless creativity and innovation, making it the perfect introduction to China’s complex history. Confronted by such a profusion of sights it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Which is why we recommend you limit yourself to just a couple of major landmarks per day, and take plenty of time to savour the more mundane, but utterly compelling, sides of city life: senior citizens practising Tai Chi in the parks; the bustle of the narrow, medieval hutongs (backstreets); and the endless games of chess played around the Temple of Heaven. In the evenings, sample fine cuisines in Beijing’s famous restaurants, enjoy scintillating acrobatic performances by the State Circus, and marvel at the exotic splendour of Chinese classical opera.

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Chengde

Framed by the rippled slopes of the Yunshan Mountains, the magnificent Imperial Mountain Resort in Chengde, 155 miles (250km) north of Beijing on the banks of the Wulie River, served as a summer season retreat for the Manchu emperors. The complex had a dual function: part holiday home; part charm offensive. Potentially troublesome princes from the provinces were invited here to be pampered for a few weeks in the hope this would render them more amenable to the will of the empire. But whereas the Forbidden City impressed its vassals by a show of grandeur and implacability, the Mountain Resort did so with unabashed joie de vivre. Its centrepiece remains the sumptuous royal apartment. Kept as a museum, the buildings hold a wealth of art, furniture and everyday utensils that yield vivid insights into the luxurious lifestyle of the Qing court.

The Great Wall

China’s Great Wall undulates for over 12,400 miles (20,000km) across the north of the country – an astounding engineering feat and vivid testament to both the might of the emperors who built it, and the fear inspired by the Mongol hordes whom it was designed to repel. Work on the fortifications began in the 5th century BC, but peaked during the Ming era (14th–17th century), when much of the rammed earth and brickwork was replaced by dressed stone and the majority of the hallmark square lookout towers were erected. Sections of the wall are easily reachable in a day trip from Beijing, but it pays to pick your spot, particularly on weekends and public holidays. To avoid the queues and crowds, we recommend the 6-mile (11-km) stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai, which is much wilder and set amid truly spectacular scenery – ideal for soft trekking. For the less sure-footed, we also like Mutianyu, where the ramparts have been well reconstructed and a cable car ensures easy access to high battlements yielding more superb views.

We’re always on the lookout for special places to stay in off-beat locations where you can experience bucolic pockets of rural China in stylish comfort, and were thrilled when we discovered this wonderful boutique hotel at the foot of the Great Wall. Created by an expat couple, its hub is an old glazed tile factory, where former kilns and workshops have been converted into luxury guest rooms. Recycled bricks and ceramic-mosaic panels create an earthy, homely feel, while picture windows frame views of the nearby wall. Private grounds with fruit trees and a discrete hot tub enfold the property – a heavenly base for wall treks and leisurely bike rides. Brickyard Retreat, Mutianyu

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Beyond the Great Wall

A contender for the title ‘China’s Greatest View’ has to be the panorama of jagged peaks, boulder- strewn snow fields and waterfalls surrounding Tian Chi Hu, a spectacular crater lake on the border of North Korea. Filling a windswept caldera, the lake’s deep-cobalt-blue waters form the centrepiece of the Changbai Shan Nature Reserve, a park visited by large numbers of Chinese but surprisingly few foreigners. In summer, thousands of walkers every day hike up the flight of 1,000 steps to the viewing platform overlooking the lake. In 2007, one visitor shot a video showing the fins of 6 creatures believed to inhabit the caldera’s water - China’s own Loch Ness Monsters! Tian Chi Hu & the Changbai Shan Nature Reserve

Harbin

Formerly the last outpost of civilization before the onset of the Siberian Wilderness, Harbin rose to prominence in the late-19th century after the completion of the railway to Vladivostok. The line encouraged many Russian immigrants to the city, which became known as “Little Moscow” for the profusion of onion-domed Orthodox churches that dominated its skyline. The grandest of these, the Cathedral of St Sofia, still stands in the main square, its green domes and gilded crosses now splendidly restored. Harbin’s principal attraction, however, is the great Ice Festival held here each January-February. More picturesque Russian architecture is to be found amid the narrowbackstreets of the Daoli shopping district. With temperatures plunging to -20°C or below, teams of artists from all over the world fly in to Harbin, early January until the Chinese New Year, in early February, to carve a fairyland of castles, rides and other large-scale structures from blocks of solid ice. Lit with coloured lights at night, the creations are accompanied by a huge array of snow figures on nearby Sun Island, along with convoluted toboggan and tube tracks. Visitors may walk across the frozen Songhua River to reach the site, or travel by horse-drawn carriage. The end of the event is marked with an exuberant firework display, followed by the mass destruction of the ice sculptures. Harbin Ice Festival

The Hanging Temple

Wutai Shan

No matter how many pictures of it you may have seen beforehand, your first glimpse of the iconic Xuankong temple outside Datong is guaranteed to evoke gasps of amazement. Clinging to a near vertical sandstone escarpment, 246ft (75m) off the floor of a hidden valley, the upswept roofs and wooden galleries of the shrine have hung precariously over the same void for nearly 1,500 years. Oak beams driven into postholes in the cliff provide support for this gravity-defying edifice, whose halls, hollowed from the rocks, contain Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian deities. Miraculous vestiges from the 5th and 6th centuries, the Yungang Caves honeycomb a spread of sandstone cliffs outside the city of Datong, a day’s journey west of Beijing in Shanxi Province. The grottoes were carved by the Northern Wei dynasty over a period of around seventy years, beginning in 453 AD, and remain in a remarkable state of preservation. Influences from ancient Greece, Persia, Ceylon and India are detectable in the finely sculpted features of the giant Buddhas, and swirls of minor deities, bodhisattvas, celestial nymphs and decorative motifs surrounding them. The interiors of many shrines also retain wonderfully vibrant paintings, rendered in earthy reds, yellow ochre and lapis blue. The Yungang Grottoes

Rising to over 3,000m (10,000ft), Wutai is the highest peak in northern China and one of the country’s most sacred sites. Streams of locals make the ascent to the summit every day, pausing en route to worship at some of the 53 monasteries that cling to the sides of the thickly forested massif, which Buddhists regard as the home of the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjusri. Dating from the 8th and 9th century, these shrines include the oldest surviving wood-built temple in China and are exquisitely decorated.

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Longmen Grottoes

Pingyao

On the banks of the Yi River just south of Luoyang in Henan Province, the Longmen Cave complex was begun by the Northern Wei dynasty in 439 AD and completed by the Tang emperors. In all, some 10,000 figures were carved out of the limestone cliffs looming above the water here, the largest of them 17 meters tall. Seeing the giant Buddhas for the first time after climbing the flight of steps leading from the river is a goose-bump-inducing experience. Although reachable via superfast train from Xi’an, the site has not been overdeveloped like many in China and retains a serene atmosphere, particularly in the morning.

With its bumper crop of antique buildings dating from the Ming and Qing eras, this gem of a walled town makes an ideal stopover if you’re travelling overland between Beijing and Xi’an. Strolling through its paved streets, whose thousands of old houses, courtyard mansions and shopfronts remain gloriously free of garish modern signboards and motorized traffic, feels like stepping into a scene from a Chinese epic. Most impressive of all are the immaculately preserved, late-14th- century walls, which retain their barbican gates and original watchtowers, from where the views over Pingyao’s time-warped roofscape of red-tiled, upswept eaves are wonderful.

Dengfeng, Songshan Mountain & Shaolin

Luoyang

The uniformally modern appearance of Luoyang belies its extraordinary antiquity. Ranged around the confluence of the Luo and Yellow Rivers, the city has been a major urban centre for more than three millennia, yielding traces of civilization dating back to 2070 BC. Nearly every recent building project has uncovered many layers of human artefacts. The finest of them are displayed in the city’s superb museum, whose pièce de résistance is an assemblage of sacrificial pits containing the remains of royal horses, chariots, jade and metal goods.

A side trip neatly combined with the Longmen Caves is a visit to Songshan, one of China’s Five Great Mountains, which rises behind the town of Dengfeng, an hour’s drive east of Luoyang. Streams of martial arts enthusiasts travel to the area to visit or study at the famous Shaolin Temple, birthplace of Chinese Kung Fu. One of the great spectacles of this part of the world is the daily exercise ritual when thousands of Kung Fu students dressed in matching suits perform synchronized routines in local temple courtyards, squares and hilltop platforms. Testifying to the town’s great antiquity, the Zhongye Miao temple on the eastern outskirts of Dengfeng was founded 2,000 years ago but recreated in its present form during the Ming era. Wander the paved courtyards and relax under the shade of ancient trees, with the elegant ceramic roofs silhouetted against the wooded hillside behind. With time, you can follow a path all the way up the mountain for spellbinding views over the Yellow River basin to the north.

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In 2013, the Chinese authorities added 94 items to a list of 101 precious relics already identified as ‘Class 1 National Treasures’. Spanning 4,000 years of culture, from the Neolithic to the Qing era, all are exquisite, priceless artefacts, regarded as the finest expressions of Chinese civilization ever discovered. Each has a special story, revealing something unique about the time and place in which it originated. The other thing that sets these items apart is that they will never be seen outside China. The following are among our favourites. They can all easily be slotted into a tailor-made tour. The Gansu Flying Horse | Gansu Provincial Museum, Lanzhou. Dating from the 2nd century AD, this famous bronze depicts one of the legendary ‘Heavenly Horses’ beloved of China’s ancient warlords. It is shown in mid-stride, head erect, with one hoof delicately poised on a bird, which looks up indignant- ly – an image full of timeless grace, and humour. He Zun, Baoji Bronze Museum | near Xi’an, Shaanxi. The consummate skill of bronze casters from the Zhou era (1046–771 BC) is vividly displayed in this ornate ritual urn, whose donatory inscription includes the earliest reference to China so far discovered. Horse Chariots, Museum of the Terracotta Army | near Xi’an. In a museum of many wonders, the two half-size chariots, each pulled by teams of four horses and ridden by a charioteer under a parasol, stand out for their lifelike quality. Phoenix Crowns, National Museum Beijing | It seems almost futile to pick out just one treasure from the wonderful national collection, but the famous Ming fengguan crowns, culled from the tomb of the Wanli Emperor, linger in the memory longer than most. Bronze Tree, Sanxingdui Museum | near Chengdu, Sichuan. Adorned with mythical birds and fruit, with a dragon curling up its trunk, this beautiful, 4-metre-tall bronze Spirit Tree dates from the 11th century BC and is displayed alongside huge, bulging-eyed idols found on the same ancient site. Musician Figurines on a Camel | Shaanxi History Museum, Shaanxi. ‘Sancai’ figures are ceramic treas- ures dating from the Tang era and this one, showing a group of eight musicians playing instruments on camel back as their mount roars (with disapproval, one imagines), looks as fresh and full of life now as it did when it was fired 1,300 years ago. National Treasures China

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Ta i l o r - m a d e C h i n a b y T r a n s I n d u s

Xi’an

The Terracotta Army

City Walls

In 1974, a couple of farm workers digging a well in the fields outside Xi’an uncovered the limb of a terracotta figure. What they didn’t know then, and which only became apparent after years of careful excavation, was that the statue formed part of an army of more than 8,000 soldiers, horses and chariots buried below ground in three huge pits, each the size of several football pitches. The discovery ranked among the most sensational archaeological finds of all time. Until you set eyes on the subterranean legion, lined up in long trenches now protected by giant hangers, it’s hard to comprehend the scale of the project. Yet the long-buried army is only one part of a much larger ensemble that includes a colossal, man-made mound – still unexcavated, and thought to hold the actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, who reigned in the second century BC. Apart from the bewildering size of the site, what most impresses about the Terracotta Army is how unnervingly lifelike the figures are. Each one has its own distinct facial expression, posture, hair style, clothing and weapons, preserved in amazing detail.

Extending in an unbroken rectangle of 9 miles (14km), the great walls erected in 1370 during the Ming era around the capital, then known as ‘Chang’an’, are among the oldest, largest and best preserved of their kind in China. They’re made of rammed earth and distinctive ‘blue bricks’, are more than 15m (50ft) thick and 12m high, with four night watchtowers at the corners. Besides walking, a memorable way of experiencing them is to cycle around the ramparts on a rented bicycle, pausing at regular intervals to admire the spectacular views over the inner city.

X i’an, capital of populous Shaanxi Province, is one of China’s fastest expanding industrial centres, and at first glance seems to hold little promise for visitors. For over two thousand years, however, this well watered city at the heart of the Guanzhong Plain served as the seat of China’s ruling dynasties – ‘Chang’an’, or ‘the Axis of the World’ – rivalled in its day only by Baghdad and Constantinople. Behind the skyscrapers and flyovers, many impressive vestiges survive from these past civilizations, including the most complete set of Ming-era ramparts in the county. Above all, however, Xi’an is noteworthy as the springboard for visits to the Terracotta Army and necropolis complex of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which lie in the countryside 17 miles (28km) east.

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Ta i l o r - m a d e C h i n a b y T r a n s I n d u s

Hua Shan

The limestone summits of Hua Shan, one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains, surge in spectacular fashion from the plains of the Yellow River basin, midway between Xi’an and Luoyang. Traditionally regarded as the most forbidding of the great holy massifs, it used to attract only die-hard hermits, plant hunters, shamanic priests and very determined local pilgrims. In recent years, however, cable cars have been installed to carry day trippers to its upper reaches, rendering the mountain accessible for anyone who is moderately fit. Aside from the special atmosphere of the old paved walkways, with their incense- filled shrines and stands of wind-bent pine trees, the main incentive to make the climb are the sublime views from its five main peaks.

Xi’an’s Temples, Markets & Mosques

Great Museums

The Tang Tombs

The most iconic of Xi’an’s many historic monuments is the soaring Giant Wild Goose Pagoda (659 AD). It was originally built by the Tang Emperor, Gaozong in the late 7th century, but substantially enlarged by his redoubtable wife, Empress Wu Zetian, who seized power after his death. She added five new storeys to the original eight, making this one of the tallest buildings in the world at the time. There are now only seven floors, and after sustaining earthquake damage on a few occasions, the pagoda tilts perceptibly – though it’s perfectly to safe to ascend, via a handsome wooden staircase inside. The other poster piece in the city is the huge Drum Tower, erected in 1380 at the same time as the Ming ramparts. The structure derives its name from the fact that a large drum placed inside it used to be struck in the evening to announce the start of curfew. The backstreets behind it comprise the Muslim (Hui ) quarter, where men wear shiite skull caps and the air is charged with the aroma of baking bread and sesame oil produced in small neighbourhood factories. Its main street, Beiyuanmen, is great for an aimless wander in the evening, when a huge array of snacks are prepared at terrace kitchens. Try the famous Jiansan steamed buns and glistening red persimmon pies. In the same district, northwest of the Drum Tower, the Great Mosque is one of the oldest and best preserved in China – an exquisite building blending classical Chinese and Islamic styles. Its four interlocking courtyards contain superb examples of ancient calligraphy and carved wood gateways dating from the mid-8th century. At the building’s heart is an impressive prayer hall that accommodates up to a thousand worshippers at one time. Descended from Arab and Persian merchants who first arrived in the Chinese capital in the 7th century, the city’s Hui minority are a living legacy of the old Silk Roads and transcontinental trade they facilitated.

The Terracotta Army is far from the only archaeological treasure of note to be seen in Xi’an. Another superb collection of antiquities is housed at the Shaanxi History Museum, close to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, whose pride and joy is a wonderful collection of 3,000-year-old bronze ritual objects dating from the Zhou era. Although considerably smaller, the museum of Famen Si, 74 miles (120km) west of the city, holds an extraordinary assemblage of priceless Tang artefacts. They were left in the 7th century as offerings alongside precious relics of the Buddha believed to have been donated by Emperor Asoka of India in the third century BC. The sacred remains comprise three finger bones, enclosed in eight nested boxes. Accompanying them were a selection of exquisite gold and silver items and an embroidered silk skirt belonging to Empress Wu Zetian, now enshrined inside a giant modern stupa complex – the Namaste Dagoba – which attracts Buddhist pilgrims from across Asia.

Scattered over the flat plains surrounding Xi’an are dozens of large mounds which archaeologists have only recently identified as tombs of the Han and Tang emperors, their wives, concubines and generals. Lying on the west side of the city around the slopes of Mount Liang, the largest concentration is at Qianling. The site’s grandest mausoleum holds the remains of Emperor Gaozong and his consort, the Empress Wu Zetian – the only woman ever to rule China. Flanked by beautifully preserved statues of winged horses, lions, ostriches and (headless) dignitaries, a paved pathway known as the ‘Spirit Way’ leads to the Empress’s tomb. At its head stands one of the great enigmas of Chinese archaeology: the Wordless Stele, a epigraph which for reasons to be established, the empress instructed was to be left blank. Wu Zetian’s 1,300-year-old tomb remains unexcavated, but others at Qianling have been cracked open, including several retaining superb murals depicting scenes from the Tang court.

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F lowing for 3,915 miles (6,300km) from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea, the Yangtze is the country’s most scenic waterway. A series of dramatic gorges line the great river, which since the completion of the Three Gorges Dam in 2003 has been navigable for most of its length by luxury cruise vessels. The full journey, from Chongqing in the east to Shanghai on the western seaboard, takes 7 days to complete (or 9 in the other direction). For those with less time, we normally recommend covering just the section between Chongqing and Yichang – the most scenically diverse and culturally interesting – which can be completed in 4 days if travelling downstream, or 5 if you start at Yichang and travel westwards against the current. Our favorite vessels are ... Yangtze Cruising

The smallest of the Yangtze cruisers, with only 62 exclusive cabins and suites (the most spacious on the river), this is the crème de la crème of Yangtze cruisers, and our number one choice. All of the accommodation benefits from private balconies and gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows yielding expansive views. An unrivalled staff-to- passenger ratio of 1:1 ensures highly personalized service at all times. International-grade, five-star facilities on board include à la carte dining, an indulgent spa, fitness centre, theatre and high observation deck. Passengers may also benefit from a range of on-board activities, including Tai Chi, chinese cookery classes and lessons in traditional Mandarin calligraphy. Another real plus with the Sanctuary is that it visits less crowded sites than its competitors, and uses only the most knowledgeable guides. Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer

Century’s fleet of seven cruisers, which carry between 198 and 408 passengers, is one of the most modern and well equipped working the Yangtze, and the only one whose boats all have grand atrium lobbies, sun deck bars and private balconies in every cabin. A lively programme of entertainment is provided in the evenings, featuring local opera and dance. Century River Cruises

Victoria Cruises

This America-owned company runs cruises year round in boats with capacities ranging from 200 to 400 passengers. Most were built in the 1990s, but have seen major renovation since and offer excellent value for money. Being larger ships, they have the feel of classic cruisers, with elevators and atrium lobbies in their spacious interiors.

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City Sights

The contemporary pleasures of shopping, eating and gallery browsing are very much the order of the day here, but you shouldn’t miss the fabulous museum – one of China’s finest – nor the classical Ming-era gardens of Yu Yuan. To get a sense of what the port must have been like at the twilight of the colonial era, explore the low-rise and leafy French Concession district, where the European powers first took root in the 18th century, and which later became a desirable residential neighbourhood; it’s now filled with elegant villas, shops, cafés and restaurants. The Maglev Train | There’s no better way to feel the pulse of modern China on arrival in Shanghai than by taking the futuristic Maglev (‘magnetic levitation’) Train from Pudong airport into town. The German- designed locomotive floats on a friction-free magnetic cushion that enables it to travel at dizzying speeds of up to 268mph (431km/h), covering the 19 miles (30km) of its route in just 7 minutes. The sensation of hurtling through the green belt at such a velocity is simply amazing, especially when you pass another train travelling in the opposite direction!

Suzhou

Zhujiajiao

A precious remnant of old China survives on the western fringes of Shanghai at Zhujiajiao – a traditional water town on the Dianpu River. Packed around a network of winding canals is an exceptionally well preserved array of late-medieval shophouses, temples and ceremonial halls, dating from the era when the district oversaw a lucrative trade in cloth, rice and spices. Their whitewashed, dark-wood walls and terracotta roofs have been beautifully maintained and kept free of unsightly signboards. Get an early start to beat the tour buses, and be sure to take a boat ride on the river to see the splendid Fangsheng Bridge, Zhujiajiao’s five-span centrepiece, which dates from the late 16th century.

Only a 40-minute ride away from Shanghai on the bullet train, Suzhou is an ancient city whose antique core has fared better than many during the recent ferro-concrete revolution. Visitors travel here from Shanghai to wander around the old city’s network of cobbled streets and tree-lined canals, with their pretty stone bridges and elegant merchants’ houses. Some of China’s loveliest classical gardens have survived too, spanning a period of a thousand years when wealthy local administrators and traders competed with each other to create the most delicate, refined havens. Encorporating rockeries, water features, miniature hills, pagodas and pavilions, they’re considered among the finest examples of landscape art in the country and have been widely copied.

Bell tower in Xi’an

Shanghai

Fairmont Peace Hotel

‘Impeccable’ is the word most often used to describe the Fairmont Peace Hotel, whose distinctive green pyramidal roof has been a landmark on Shanghai’s Bund since it was built in 1929 by the property and textile tycoon Victor Sassoon. Overlooking the Huangpu River, with sweeping views of Nanjing Road and Pudong across the water, the hotel was intended in its day to be the most beautiful east of Suez, and for many it still is, thanks to the enduringly glamorous Art Deco grandeur, gracious service and breathtakingly beautiful interiors. Don’t miss the house jazz band (average age 70) which has been serenading guests here for 88 years.

A t the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai became the hub of European imperial ambitions in mainland China after the Opium Wars, and today is the powerhouse of a dramatic economic revolution. Double-digit growth over the past decade has added over 4,000 skyscrapers to its futuristic skyline (twice the number of New York’s). Giant TV screens, neon-lit malls and 10-lane expressways have become emblematic of the downtown area, whose big-name designer boutiques and supercar showrooms are striking reminders of China’s new affluence. Monuments to Shanghai’s previous mega-boom, which transformed the city during the 1920s, abound along the Bund, the iconic walkway lining the Huangpu River. The best place in the city to get your bearings, this breezy promenade backed by stately, old Neo-Classical and Art Deco buildings faces the dramatic skyline of Pudong across the water – a mesmerizing spectacle around sunset when the twinkling lights of its innumerable tower blocks are reflected in the water.

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