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Once Is Not Enough with China

I’m ready to go back to China.

Like many who have traveled halfway around the world to this complex, evolving country, what I really did with my first trip there last March was whet my appetite to return.

I traveled with Wendy Wu Tours, a company founded in 1994 by China native Wendy Wu, which began its North American division in 2010.

Don’t get me wrong: To say I’ve walked on the Great Wall is a great start. But that wall encompasses remote regions of China I’d love to see. To see the terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an is remarkable. But it begs for the opportunity to see other archaeology in this vast country.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing is a powerful place to visit for Americans, as much for its vast governmental complex as for the images most remember from the youthful uprising that took place there in 1989. But Tiananmen Square, for me, was more symbolic than substantive.

It’s China’s people I want to understand better, not its government. Consider the paradoxical life story of professional tennis star Li Na, who trained under strict government control and won two major championships, including last year’s Australian Open. As a player, Na rebelled against her country’s repressive control. But in retirement, she is returning to her homeland to raise a family and train future tennis stars.

Consider former NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury, who retooled his career in China with the Beijing Ducks and now claims that city as his home. Marbury has said he will remain there when he retires. This from a man who grew up playing basketball in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

Thanks to Wendy Wu Tours, I’ve seen Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an. I’ve walked in public parks, toured the Forbidden Palace and enjoyed delicious meals served family-style on large turntables resembling “lazy susans.” I’ve hiked the Great Wall until my legs opted out. Those are the things you do on your first trip to China.

Then, if you’re like me, you’re ready to go back.


Mystifying Shanghai

Everything you’ve heard about Shanghai is true. It is marvelous, mystifying, colossal and contemporary. Walking its Bund District gives you that same feeling you get walking in downtown Manhattan. It feels like you’re in the center of the universe.

“In 1991, nothing existed over there,” said Troy, our local guide for Shanghai as we gazed across the Huangpu River at an array of sky-piercing architecture. “It was farmland. We have built a new city in 23 years. That’s the CBC Building, the world’s second tallest. That’s the Oriental Pearl Tower, a landmark featuring 11 globes. The World Financial Center is the one that resembles a bottle opener at the top.”

A century ago, the Bund District was this city’s financial center. Today, ornate 19th-century hotels like the Fairmont Peace and Peninsula line one side of the river while incandescent skyscrapers spring from the other. Many travelers do evening cruises, as we did, to marvel at laser light shows these buildings serve up at astronomical expense.

Our guide for the entire week was a young man named Leo. Three local guides, like Troy, joined us in each of our three primary cities — Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing. In total, these three men and one woman offered different takes on Chinese culture, adding personal dimensions relating to home, family, marriage and traditions.

“Our philosophy is to expose travelers to as much local insight as we can,” said Wendy Wu North America president Mark Grundy. “China is allowing a much freer exchange of information today. We have two guides with the group at any one time because they all come from different backgrounds. They’re college graduates, and we encourage them to speak their minds and answer questions openly.”

Before departing from Shanghai, we made a day trip to Wuzhen, an ancient water town whose residents live in row houses lining its waterways. A historic center for silk production and indigo fabrics, its quiet canals are still used for transporting goods bound for the Yangtze River. We toured its Ming-era (1368-1643) Bed Museum that spreads across a nobleman’s house and watched as dozens of freshly hung indigo cloths rustled in windy courtyards.

Today, Wuzhen is more popular with tourists than with its youth. “It’s mostly elderly people in Wuzhen now,” said Leo. “Young people say this life is no longer cool. They’re moving to the city.”

Mac Lacy

Mac Lacy is president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader Inc. Mac has been traveling and writing professionally ever since a two-month backpacking trip through Europe upon his graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Evansville in 1978.