Bespoke China: A Custom Journey Through the Middle Kingdom

Travel Partner: ATJ

Duration | 14 Days

Destination | China

Starting Price | $10, 292


There is a sense that now is the time to experience the intriguing culture of China in the midst of its profound metamorphosis. China continues to mobilize, building and evolving—reclaiming its role as one of Asia’s great cultural, political and economic powers. China’s history cannot be ignored. As the region’s superpower for centuries, China’s architecture, technology, cuisine, art and beliefs are so deeply embedded in other Asian cultures that they are, ironically, scarcely recognizable as Chinese at all. Grasp the scope of China’s legacy with visits to a variety of architectural, religious and historical sites and museums.

This journey is a pioneering mix of the classic and the remote, fully capturing China in all its complexity. Explore its pulsating cities and essential ancient treasures, and journey far into the remote countryside to meet tribal peoples practicing their traditional ways of life. Visit world-class museums and view cultural performances beloved by locals. China is a grand, successful collision of old and new—the sense of dynamic change is palpable. Come explore one of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations during its current seismic cultural uplift.

Day 1 – Beijing

Overnight – The Peninsula Beijing

Welcome to China! On arrival in Beijing today a Fast Track Arrival service has been arranged thus ensuring your expedited processing through arrival formalities including Immigration and Customs, which will ensure a much quicker arrival. Upon entering the Arrival Hall meet your private driver from ATJ and transfer to your centrally located, luxury hotel for checkin with the remainder of the evening at your leisure.

Beijing’s history largely begins with Ghengis Khan, although the area has been occupied for most of the last 3,000 years. Ghengis Khan burned Yanjing (Beijing’s former name) in 1215. From the ashes of the destroyed town rose the Khan’s new city, and Beijing has remained a seat of power ever since. Marco Polo visited the city and became part of Kublai Khan’s court. Over 1,000 years later, the city is China’s administrative, financial and political capital, rivaled only by Shanghai.

The 2008 Olympics brought forth cleaning, restoring and expansion. Green industry and low-emissions public transport are having an effect already on Beijing’s infamous smog. Despite all this new development, the old Beijing of the emperors and the mandarins still lurks just beneath the surface.

Day 2 – Beijing

Overnight – The Peninsula Beijing

Enjoy breakfast and morning at leisure to rest after your long international flight. Late this morning meet your English speaking guide and depart on an afternoon exploration of the city focusing on the city’s traditional neighborhoods on foot and by bicycle rickshaw. The city bustles with noodle sellers, students, construction and office workers, bicycles and cars at all hours of the day. The vanishing hutong (alleyway) communities are cooperative neighborhoods that have existed for hundreds of years. They are being replaced by high-rise apartment buildings to battle Beijing’s urban sprawl, much to the consternation of residents.

Traveling through fast disappearing traditional neighborhoods, this experience allows the visitor to see what the entire city once looked like, and what the old way of life was like. Among the hutongs, see elders whiling away the day with a game of Chinese chess or mahjong, shopkeepers selling traditional Beijing snacks like jian bing (pancakes) and baozi (steamed buns), and hear calls announcing the arrival of the knife sharpener or cardboard collector. Afterwards, visit Liulichang Street and explore the antique shops. It’s a nice spot for a late afternoon stroll. Return to the hotel late this afternoon with evening at leisure.

Day 3 – Beijing

Overnight – The Peninsula Beijing

Following breakfast reconvene with your English guide and depart on a full day exploration of Beijing beginning with Tiananmen Square, the heart of Beijing and the largest public square in the world. You will likely see families flying kites, elderly people taking walks and other aspects of everyday life.

Then, under Mao’s watchful eye, walk through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and enter the Forbidden City—the seat of power for emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. View its imperial gardens, expansive architecture and museums filled with antiques and treasures as well as Shufangzhai Palace which was used by Emperor Qianlong as his personal study and reception for visiting dignitaries and is filled with the original furnishings from the Qing dynasty. During the Chinese New Year, the emperor would accept congratulations from officials and invite them to the palace to enjoy Chinese opera and other performances. Shufangzhai is not open to the general public and requires special permission and access. (Not available weekends or Mondays.)

End your exploration of the Forbidden City with a short climb to the summit of Jinshan Hill for lovely views of the Forbidden City and the surrounding imperial gardens where locals gather to fly kites and practice tai chi and then enjoy lunch.

This afternoon visit the Temple of Heaven, where the former emperors prayed for good harvests. The centerpiece of the temple complex, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is a masterpiece of Ming architecture. A taiji (shadow boxing) or tai chi lesson has been arranged inside a private garden in the Temple of Heaven with a Taiji Master. One can also witness locals practicing tai chi and dancing together in the gardens and courtyards outside the temple. Return to the hotel late this afternoon with the evening at leisure.

Day 4 – Beijing

Overnight – The Peninsula Beijing

No trip to Beijing, or China for that matter is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Though the underlying architecture dates from the Ming Dynasty, the original plan for the Great Wall and some of its construction dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). It was built mainly to protect the prosperity of the northern cities from Mongol conquerors.

Following breakfast, depart Beijing on a full-day excursion to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, located 50 miles northeast of the city with your English-speaking guide. This section of the Great Wall was renovated in the 1950s and 1960s. While being more remote and less visited than the more touristy Badaling section, the Mutianyu section does include cable car access to the top of the wall. Spend the day exploring the wall, enjoying the superb natural beauty of the area based on your interests and suggestions of the guide including hikes ranging from one to several hours.

Returning to Beijing this afternoon, stop along the way to visit the Ming Tombs, also known as Shisan Ling (Thirteen Tombs). This is in a charming area of rolling countryside dotted with tombs, small villages and farms. The road leading up to the renovated tombs is a “spirit way.” It starts with a triumphal arch, then goes through the Great Palace Gate and passes by a giant tortoise which bears the largest stele in China. Return to the hotel late this afternoon with evening at leisure.

Day 5 – Chengdu

Overnight – Temple House

After breakfast, meet your private driver and transfer to the airport for the flight to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. On arrival meet your English-speaking guide and transfer to your hotel for check-in and a chance to get settled. Then depart on an afternoon exploration of Old Chengdu. While a modern commercial and financial center and the capital city of Sichuan Province, Chengdu has a history of thousands of years and originally was a backwater tea and spice-trading town. It has half the population of Shanghai, but twice the number of tea houses, and a visit to one is a window into the life of the locals. Despite the recent economic development, the older sections of Chengdu have kept their charm. The streets are narrow, lively and lined with trees and old houses, providing the perfect setting for leisurely tea houses and flower shops. Continue with a visit to the Wuhou Temple and Wenshu Temple. Next you will visit Jinli Street, in the heart of the Old City, lined with cafes, stores and artisan workshops. It is an excellent introduction to street food and local specialties including Sichuan dim sum and hot pot.

Day 6 – Chengdu

Overnight – Temple House

Early this morning depart Chengdu on the one hour journey to the newly developed Dujiangyan Panda Valley. The giant panda, one of the most delightful and captivating of animals, is also one of the most endangered. The best scientific estimates place the number of wild pandas at approximately 1,600. This research center focuses its efforts on reintroducing pandas into the wild. The sanctuary has three parts: the breeding area, semi-wild reintroduction area, and the reintroduction area where pandas undergo wilderness training for their transition into the wild.

Arriving early, walk around the panda areas to see them when they are most active. Afterwards begin the “Panda Keeper” program. This opportunity allows the lucky visitor to experience and enjoy close contact with the giant pandas and learn about the wilderness-training program. During the program work with Chinese staff members to take care of the pandas, including cleaning the panda areas, preparing the panda’s food and feeding them.

This afternoon, return to Chengdu stopping at the ancient town of Jiezi. Jiezi is a 1,000-year-old town with ancient streets, temples and beautiful scenery. There are a plethora of ancient and interesting sites scattered throughout Jiezi’s old town including the Guangyan Buddhist Temple, primary forests, ancient stone pagodas, and bridges as well as a beautifully preserved main street and 32 historic temples. Return to the hotel late this afternoon with the evening at leisure.

Day 7 – Xian

Overnight – Sofitel Legend People’s Grand Hotel

Following a leisurely breakfast, you will be transferred to the train station for the short journey to Xian, the ancient capital of China, which has witnessed the rise and fall of 14 imperial dynasties over two millennia. Once the largest and most influential city in Asia, Xian was the gateway to the West and the starting point of the Silk Road. The train is one of China’s newest and fastest express lines which takes less total time than flying and includes Executive Class seats which is the best class of service offered.

On arrival in Xian this afternoon meet your English-speaking guide and transfer to the hotel, located less than 10 minutes away, for check-in and a chance to get settled. Afterwards, if interested, explore Xian’s Old City and the Muslim quarter, passing narrow streets lined with mud brick houses. The area is also home to traditional restaurants, shops and the Great Mosque. This is the largest mosque in China, dating back to the early 18th century, however recent research indicates the mosque may have been established hundreds of years earlier. Spend some time here this afternoon and evening before returning to the hotel with the evening at leisure.

Day 8 – Xian

Overnight – Sofitel Legend People’s Grand Hotel

Following breakfast, reconvene with the English-speaking guide and depart on a full-day exploration of Xian beginning with the renowned Terracotta Warriors, found in the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qinshihuang (221-207 BC). This major archeological find was unearthed in 1974 by a farmer digging a well. To date, over 8,000 warriors have been uncovered in four separate vaults. However, archeologists believe that they are merely one part of a vast army that surrounds the yet unexcavated burial mound of the emperor.

Then visit the Shaanxi Provincial Museum. This museum is considered to be one of the best in the world and is a complex of striking, Tang dynasty-style pavilions, housing a collection of 113,000 historic and cultural artifacts unearthed in Shaanxi Province. The main complex is a mixture of ancient palaces and courtyard buildings, harmonious and graceful in hue and in a simple and elegant style. This visit includes special, exclusive access to the underground frescos which are not normally open to the public.

From the museum continue next door to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The pagoda was built in 648 and stands in the middle of the Temple of Great Eternal Grace. The pagoda was built to house the Buddhist sutras brought to China from India. Based on interest and time continue exploring Xian late this afternoon including the enormous Xian City Walls, dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The walls once enclosed the immense Tang Forbidden City and today they offer a phenomenal view of the old city below. Enjoy a late afternoon stroll or bicycle ride along the top of the walls. Return to the hotel late this afternoon with the evening at leisure.

Day 9 – Yangshuo

Overnight – Banyan Tree Resort

Following breakfast, you will be transferred to the airport for the flight to Guilin and explore the Li River that has been an inspiration to Chinese poets and artists throughout the centuries. On arrival meet your English-speaking guide and depart on the two hour drive to Yangshuo, located in the heart of the Li River Valley, past picturesque villages tucked among subtropical plants and stretched in between rice paddies.

Arrive at Banyan Tree Resort and check into this beautiful, luxury hotel with time to relax and get settled. Early this evening pick up from the hotel and enjoy the Liu Sanjie Evening Show, held just south of town. The epic performance was designed and directed by Zhang Yimou, director of the film Hero and the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies. It takes place on the water, an unusual and stunning set design, where the towers of Yangshuo provide the backdrop. This is a major production with a cast of 500 singers, dancers, bamboo boats and cormorant birds. The lighting of the karst peaks is truly amazing. The performance is based on a Chinese musical movie made in 1961. The story is about a lady, with a beautiful voice, called Liu Sanjie, who lived in the city of Liuzhou where she worked in the fields. Afterwards return to the hotel with the remainder of the evening at leisure.

Day 10 – Yangshuo

Overnight – Banyan Tree Resort

Following breakfast join your English-speaking guide and depart on a full-day exploration of the area beginning with a morning walking exploration of Yangshuo town as well as an opportunity to ride bicycles through the countryside if interested.

Spend the morning exploring Moon Hill, a very unique natural formation that is a must-see in the area. If you have the energy, climb the 819 steps to the top of Moon Hill, affording a bird’s-eye-view of the surrounding hills. Take a close look at the “Moon” which used to be the underground river channel.

Next visit Xingping, an ancient town where locals have been living along the ancient streets for many generations. Visit the old houses and rice noodle factory in Xingping. Then drive along the old Chinese “Pony Express Road” to the small town of Fuli, with a history of 1,000 years and a population of only about 4,000. One out of every four residents in Fuli makes a living from creating and painting fans and umbrellas. Walk along the ancient narrow stone street and visit the local market, farms, rice wine factory, as well as the fan-making factories.

View the Dragon Bridge before a private bamboo raft trip on the Yulong River, one of the tributaries of the Li River, considered to be one of the most beautiful rivers in China. Cruising along the river, one feels as if floating along a corridor of landscape paintings of limestone pinnacles set against terraced rice fields and picturesque villages. Return to your hotel after dusk with the remainder of the evening at leisure.

Day 11 – Shanghai

Overnight – The Peninsula Shangahi

This morning is free to relax and enjoy the resort and beautiful scenery. Late this morning pick up from the resort and transfer back to the Guilin Airport for the afternoon flight to Shanghai. On arrival meet your English-speaking guide and immediately transfer to the luxury, riverside hotel for check-in with the remainder of the evening at leisure.

Shanghai is booming. Once China’s den of iniquity, this seductive city was established by Europeans in the mid-19th century to facilitate their trade in opium, silk and tea. Every possible vice flourished, while the city’s indigenous masses were exploited and starved. This proved fertile ground for radical politics—it was here that communism first took root in China. After decades of isolation and torpor under Mao, the city is now transforming itself, at an incredible pace, into one of Asia’s premier economic powerhouses.

A Buck Rogers-esque, science fiction-style architecture defines much of Shanghai’s unique new skyline, with flying saucers, orbs on pinnacles and glass skyscrapers towering over the more moderately scaled structures of bygone eras. Maglev trains, subways, light rail and abundant taxis allow rapid and comfortable travel about the city. Public transit and a massive investment in greenbelts and urban forestry is significantly improving Shanghai’s air quality, currently comparable to Los Angeles.

Day 12 – Shanghai

Overnight – The Peninsula Shangahi

Following breakfast rejoin with your English-speaking guide and depart on a full day exploration of Shanghai including some of the city’s more off-the-beaten-path areas, beginning with a walking tour of Shanghai’s French Concession. When the Qing dynasty was defeated in the Opium War, the Chinese empire was compelled to open many of its cities to the outside world. Shanghai was on top of this list. As a result, many countries including Britain, the US and France demanded concessions in these cities where they could have total autonomy.

In Shanghai, the French Concession is the most famous of these districts. The Concession once covered an area extending from the Bund to Xiangyang Road. Today, the area known in the city as the French Concession has become remarkably fashionable and charming. The streets around Huaihai Road contain a wealth of glorious houses, villas and alleys just waiting to be discovered. Explore the streets, take shade under the parasol trees, discover the old residences and take a break in some of the city’s trendiest restaurants and bars. There are also some great bakeries for those with a taste for the finer things in life. And, when you want to sit down and relax, Fuxing Park is a lovely area to watch the locals flying kites. Spend the morning and early afternoon exploring the area including some of the most iconic and famous, historic residences as well as the surprisingly interesting Arts & Crafts Museum as well as the Shikumen Openhouse Museum which showcases and presents Shanghai life as it was around the 1920s and 30s in a shikumen-style “stone-gate” house.

End the day with a visit to the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world and enjoy panoramic, late afternoon views of the city from the Observatory on the 118th floor. Return to the hotel with the remainder of the evening at leisure.

Day 13 – Shanghai

Overnight – The Peninsula Shangahi

This morning reconvene with your guide and continue on a full day exploration of Shanghai. This morning visit Yu Garden and the zigzag Bridge of Nine Turnings (zigzagging because demons cannot turn corners). The garden was conceived more than four centuries ago, and has been alternately neglected and restored multiple times. As any gardener knows, this has been amazingly good for the flora. Many of the trees and bushes are original plantings. Surrounding the center garden is the City God Temple Bazaar (also known as the Yu Gardens Bazaar). This vibrant, fascinating market can affect the most jaded shopper. From antiques to inexpensive souvenir toys, there is little that cannot be had at this bazaar. It is locally famed for delicious and inventive snacks, especially bao (steamed, filled buns). Yu Gardens offer an exceptional taste of Shanghai’s vibrancy.

Continue exploring Shanghai this afternoon based on your interests and the suggestions of your guide. Perhaps visit the Shanghai Museum which contains the finest collection of imperial and colonial relics in mainland China. The 120,000 pieces of textiles, bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy and paintings make this one of the single largest art collections in the world. The Shanghai Museum has an ever rotating set of exhibits. The museum partners with the Guggenheim, the British Museum and other leading institutions to bring a truly international understanding to traditional Chinese arts and culture.

Or enjoy an afternoon stroll along The Bund, the city’s original financial center and a busy bustling harbor. Over a century later, the district, better known to locals as Waitan, is a seemingly out of place colonial relic. The area’s collection of old buildings in various architectural styles, including French, German and British colonial, helped win the district its reputation as a “living museum of architecture.” Return to the hotel late this afternoon for your last night in China.

Day 14 – Shanghai

This morning pick up from the hotel and transfer to the Shanghai Pudong International Airport and check in for your international flight departure.

Prices are per person, based on two people sharing. Room categories, dates of travel and changes to services will affect the price. Dollar conversions shown (if applicable) will fluctuate throughout the year. Contact the Andrew Harper Travel Office to customize this itinerary to fit your needs.

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