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China  - Where everything is monumental, immense, thrilling, disorientating: the old as well as the modern… where 38 natural and cultural sites are classified as UNESCO world heritage sites… where ultra modern megalopolises have been erected in the last twenty years with hundreds of skyscrapers… where thousands of Westerners travel and work, contributing to a stunning collision of cultures and generations.

After spending eighteen days in ten planes, seventeen shuttles, three boats, one train, two camels, one bamboo raft, one rickshaw and dozens of cabs, we have chosen to talk about startling natural sites, delightful rustic villages and the wonderful times we experienced in China. Of course, we enjoyed Beijing and Shanghai but they are so often described in travel guides and TV shows! Let’s try to discover a different China, on the road where we made our most memories!

On the Silk Road: Dunhuang

Mogao: a treasure

Desert is not what comes to mind when we think about China. We have already forgotten a great deal about the famous Silk Road we studied in school, haven’t we?

We were first attracted by the famous Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, located in Gansu province in the northwest of China. Close to 500 caves form a system of private temples, dug out between the IVth and the XIVth centuries, where you can find wall paintings and frescos depicting the thousand Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, celestial guardians and apsaras flying gracefully around them, measuring as little as a few centimeters or dozens of meters high, as well as images of donators who contributed to the digging of the grottoes.

In one of those caves, the number 17, 50,000 manuscripts, paintings and figurines of Buddhas and other Buddhist paraphernalia were discovered in the early 1900s. One of the many treasures of China!

Mingsha: the Singing Sand Dune

Mogao leans on the Mingsha Hill in the Gobi Desert. The Mingsha Hill is composed of many sand dunes that we started to climb up at first nervously then more and more languidly on camelback for a whole hour, and on foot for the last 50 meters, before reaching the hilltop at 600 meters high. The reward is so stunning that we had to kneel down to take it in: a magnificent sunset.

At the foot of the dunes lies a crystal-clear spring shaped like a crescent moon in a charming oasis where we enjoyed a cup of tea sweetened with dried fruits, under the welcome shade.

Feeling adventurous?

Expeditions are offered to those who want to experience one or a few days in the desert. Everything is provided for, including the jeep, a bicycle, a tent for the night, trekking equipment… and a delicious mechoui.

Most of the expeditions depart from the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel. Quite remarkable for its architecture and luxury, while sober decor perfectly harmonizes with the desert, and for its magnificent roof terrace which is attractive not only for its meals and cocktails but also for the view of the singing dunes accompanied by a soft Chinese music and the singing of cuckoos.

Our stay at the Dunhuang Hotel was brief, only two days. It was so memorable, however, that we are already planning to go back to follow the entire Chinese portion of the Silk Road, including Turpan, Urümqi and Jiayuguan.

River Li and the Reed Flute Cave: mesmerizing

At the other end of the country, in the south close to the small cities of Guilin and Yangshuo, two astounding natural sites wait for us at the turn of the road…

We took a 4 hour cruise on the River Li, where we could admire hundreds of mountain summits, thanks to the winding river. We met dozens of fishermen on their bamboo rafts with their fishing partners, the cormorants. Many local fishermen still use this traditional fishing method in which they train cormorants to fish along the banks of the river where bamboo forests are dense.

When night falls, the river becomes the scene of a grandiose performance called “Impressions on Sanjie Liu”. Orchestrated by Zhang Yimo – who arranged the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2009 - it certainly left us with indelible impressions of China. Since 2004, on the natural stage of the river that is over two kilometers long, with twelve hills as a backdrop, 600 performers share their legends, praise the labors and the peaceful and happy lives of the local people, celebrate nature and give us an idea of the heart and soul of local people of the River Li in a grandiose show in three-dimension and with sound effects.

Jaw-dropping is the word that comes to mind when entering the Reed Flute Cave. Vertigo and awe are what we felt in front of this natural work of art. How can we describe the hundreds of figures sculpted by nature in those stalactites and stalagmites? This is where “a picture is worth a thousand words” takes all of its meaning from. You will need to spend half a day should you want to study these works of art in detail.

Anyone can visit this cave without fearing harm or feeling claustrophobic. It is vast and has been fixed up to a certain extent. Steps and trails have been laid out with flat stones and an efficient lighting system, with vivid colored lights in certain areas and more natural light for other parts of the cave.

Empress Cixi at the Summer Palace: an epic life and a famous painting

The summer house of Empress Cixi, not far from Beijing, is a charming site to visit, both for its environment and to discover the story of the long public and private life of this empress who loved the palace. Once a concubine, Empress Dowager Cixi was a powerful and charismatic figure who ruled over the Manchu Qing Dynasty for 47 years from 1861 to her death in 1908. A huge painting of the Empress is displayed at the Summer Palace. It was painted in 1905 by Dutch artist, Hubert Vos. Commissioned by Cixi herself, the painting was to picture her many years younger than she was at the time.

798 District in Beijing

Contemporary art aficionados will want to spend a whole day in “798 District”. We enjoyed visiting some of the one hundred art galleries exhibiting well-known Chinese and foreign artists and relaxed and ate in a few of the many restaurants and bars hosted by this trendy and avant-garde space.

Whuzen: surreal

The small village of Whuzen has said “no” to modernity. Its 10,000 inhabitants, mostly the elderly, refuse to leave the village despite the thousands of tourists converging on this tiny village each day. Luckily for them, tourists have to leave the village by mid-afternoon. Nice houses are built along a small river harboring snakes. However, the Chinese have tricked them by building their houses on squared pilotis which snakes cannot climb on… The blue and while batik workshop and the rice alcohol (52%) factory are worth a visit that we would recommend making very early in the morning on a weekday to beat the horde of tourists.

Old China Replicated: Don’t Pass it Up

In Shanghai, the Pearl Tower stands as the third tallest TV tower in the World. Located across the river from the Bund, it of course offers spectacular views of the booming city.

Nonetheless, a visit of the museum at ground level proved to be the most interesting part of our visit to the tower. Plan to spend a few hours there to wander around a replica of traditional China, with its houses, farms, boutiques, opium rooms, factories, etc. The wax figures are incredibly true and the few high technology elements are very subtly done, contributing to the brilliance of the whole exhibit.

Malraux’ s teahouse

In Shanghai, we were happy to relive history in the French quarter and enjoy a tea ceremony in the same house that Malraux visited during his time. We spent a very enjoyable time sipping tea in the beautiful teahouse while learning all about the science of tea, teapots, and cups.

Expo 2010 Shanghai

Of course, a must see, provided you are armed with patience. Should you want to see around one dozen pavilions among the 200 that have been built on the site, you will need three days.

Our favorites, summed up in one word: United Kingdom = Genius; Spain = Emotion; China = Majesty; Canada = Creativity.

Light and water at Xi’an and Hangzhou

The Chinese are great performers and well-known masters of the art of fireworks. One would expect that the nightly shows offered in public spaces in Xi’an and Hangzhou, mixing music, performances, lights and fountains would be stunning. They are indeed!

Finally, the classics

The Great Wall, the Forbidden City with Tian’anmen Square in Beijing and the Terracotta Army in Xi’an are a must. And you had better get ready to join the thousands of tourists who, like you, have decided to be there on the same day. Be sure to wear your best walking shoes and at the soldiers in Xi’an make sure to get an autograph from one of the farmers who discovered them in 1974. There is always one of them around!


A trip with such an intense itinerary, in the heart of another culture, so different from ours - or should we say two cultures, a traditional and another rapidly changing one - requires adrenalin to keep you going.

Once back home you should be prepared to fight serious jet lag. One month later, images of China will keep coming back to you. And although we thought that it was time to come back home feeling fulfilled, we have since surprised ourselves by wanting more of that amazing country!

Sylvie Berthiaume

Translation: Christiane Théberge

Air Canada, Hai Tours and CBC should be thanked for their contribution to this trip.

Mogao Grottoes

Mingsha Hill and Crescent Moon Lake

River Li

Reed Flute Cave

Suzhou, "The Little Venice"

Old Shanghai

Chinoiseries at the Xi'an market

Photos: Xiao Quan, Wang Ting and Nancy Petry




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