School Group Travel in China
China: profile destination
For centuries the country was a closed book to the world beyond her borders. Outsiders had yearned to visit this mysterious civilisation however little was known by most about this extraordinary land and its people and only the truly adventurous, like Marco Polo, even considered attempting to navigate their way around this nation.
It’s only since 1976 that tourism really started and today China is a must-see destination for everyone. China has been modernising at a rapid pace, with cities such as Shanghai a testament to their evolution. With its young middle class population the Chinese are also quickly developing a taste for consumerism culture that at one point in time no one could ever have imagined.
As much as China is keen to display its stunning scenery, historical sites and impressive cities, it is also dedicated to conveying something about how its society works. This contrast between the old world and the new is what makes China such an alluring travel destination. Although its political system has set it apart from the west, China is now moving forward in leaps and bounds, especially in the areas of trade and commerce. The major cities are indicative of the burgeoning economy of modern China.
Within the almost four million square miles of China’s vast territory live more than 1.3 billion people, which makes China the most populated nation on earth. Initially, foreign visitors were only allowed to see a fraction of what the country had to offer, however, today it is possible to visit as many as 60 different areas. An increasing number of historical sites are also being restored and opened up to viewing for foreign tourists.
China never fails to conjure up a myriad of feelings, images and a sense of mystery. Its history cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs in this article. To fully appreciate the events that have shaped the country and its people, students should take the time to read at least one of the many excellent books available on China and be prepared to be drawn into tales of adventure, betrayal, love, life and absolute amazement.
TRAVELLING IN CHINA
As in the days of Marco Polo, travellers are still regarded as honoured guests and the locals delight in watching you watching them. Within the relatively short time that China’s doors have been open to the West, few tourists have visited the rural parts of the country, including the remote region of Yunnan, which is famously home to Zhongdian, the city which gave the inspiration to the mystical Shangri –La.
So where should one visit in China? From Beijing in the east to the lands of the Uyghur people in the far west, there are a million and one places to consider in between. The following are the most popular places right now.
The Great Wall of China: China’s Great Wall needs little introduction. What you need to know about it is the best way to experience it. Get away from the restored sections and the large crowds to trek along a remote section of the Great Wall outside Beijing in Hebei Province to truly appreciate this monument. The scenery is vast and diverse as you trek your way through swaying corn cropped fields to distant green river valleys with one of the great wonders of the world as your backdrop. While there are opportunities to stay in designated accommodations, camping near to the villages will provide you with true rural hospitality in the ‘real China’ and allow a rare interaction with the local people. The opportunity to visit a number of sections of the Wall will make your school adventure even more special.
Discover the ancient Silk Road cities and history: The Romans, it is thought, first encountered silk in 53 B.C during their campaigns against the Parthians. Learning from Parthian prisoners that the silk came from a mysterious tribe in the east they sent agents to explore the route, which became one of early history’s most prized trading routes between the East and West. The birth of the Silk Road in China came as the Warring States period was brought to an end with the consolidation of the Qin Dynasty. This saw the unification of language, the standardisation of systems and the birth of Xi’an as the capital, as well as the joining of the sections of the Great Wall.
Perhaps the most significant commodity to be carried along the route was religion. Buddhism came to China from India along the northern branch of the Silk Road. Various emperors sent missions to India to learn more about this mysterious religion. Slowly, as merchants, pilgrims and missionaries came into contact with Buddhism it spread along the route and stampas, monasteries and grottos bearing murals and Buddhist artwork, began to appear, with some of the finest examples in China found near Dunhuang. For students of history, the Silk Road is a fascinating project.
Beijing; Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square: Beijing is an extraordinary city with a wealth of iconic attractions, where local knowledge is essential if you want to get the most out of limited time. Highlights include Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and everyone must do a walking tour of ancient Hutong District to get a real vibe of this amazing city.
Xian and the Terracotta Warriors: Xian is the traditional starting point of the Silk Road. This old walled city, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is a vivid example of old and new China as the modernised new city bustles around the quaint, winding lanes of the Old Quarter.
The Wild Goose Pagoda is a classic example of Chinese temple architecture. Built in 652 AD it houses Buddhist Scriptures brought back from India along the Silk Road. The Shaanxi History Museum, built in huge classical-Chinese style, houses a collection of chronologically arranged items and includes material previously housed in the Provincial Museum, with many objects that have never been on permanent display before The Muslim quarter of Xian provides a different feel to the city with its elaborate markets and the Great Mosque.
The real attraction of the city however is a discovery by local farmers in 1974 of the tomb of Qin Shihuang with its army of terracotta warriors. Each warrior stands over 6 feet tall and has different features and characteristics. Some stand in a vanguard with crossbow and longbow bearers; others hold spears, daggers and axes at the ready. They are accompanied by dozens of horse-drawn carriages and enormous terracotta horses. The sight of the warriors arising from their muddy grave, some intact, others still submerged in the ground, is an extraordinary one.
Cruise the Yangtze and Three Gorges: The Yangtze River is the longest river in China and the third longest waterway in the world. Over millions of years it has carved its way through the surrounding mountains creating the uniquely beautiful gorges now known as the Three Gorges. A cruise along the Yangtze is a must if time allows.
See Pandas in Chengdu: A recognised symbol of China, the Giant Panda is also an endangered animal. With fewer than 1000 left in the wild a visit to the Panda Breeding Research Centre in Chengdu is a unique opportunity to see these animals in an environment that mimics their natural habitat. This centre leads the world in research into the rearing and breeding of Pandas and your visit supports this ongoing work.
Explore Shangrila (Zhongdian) & the mountains of the Yunnan region: Wedged between the upper tributaries of the Mekong and Yangtze Rivers, and the vast Tibetan Plateau, Northern Yunnan is one of the most spectacular regions of China and contains approximately one third of all China’s minority groups. One can create a superb itinerary in this region alone. Visit the stone forest outside of Kunming before heading to the ancient city of Lijiang set beneath the Snow Dragon Mountain. After the dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge visit lush Tibetan villages and travel on to the high plateau that defines the borderlands of Tibet. It is here that you can view the sacred peak of Kawakarpo in the spectacular Meili Snow Mountains – an important place for pilgrims from Tibet.
Kashgar Markets: You wouldn’t know you were in China, or the 21st century for that matter, at the Sunday markets in Kashgar. Kashgar is in Uyghur territory on the far west side of China and was an important city during the ‘Great Game’, a strategic rivalry staged between Britain and Russia in their attempts to secure the Central Asian states.
This article really only touches on what you can do in China. Diversity in landscape and depth in history are two things that are abundant in China and to truly appreciate these natural and cultural wonders using an experienced organisation that can provide quality local guides will ensure that your students have a memorable experience of China.
This article first appeared in Active Education magazine.