Getting a global education on a learning vacation to China

by Diana Hunt, Aiken, SC

A search for “learning vacations” on Google produced 465,645 results. Obviously, many travelers are looking for more than zonk-out beach vacations and the whirlwind “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” kind of forced march. Experienced travelers have become hungry for global education.

Organized cultural vacations pre-sent opportunities to learn a language; to learn a skill, such as sailing, golf, skiing or cooking; to participate in scientific endeavors; to earn college credit, or to attend adult retreats that offer everything from the arts to yoga — to name just a few possibilities. Among the major players in the educational approach to vacationing are Smithsonian Study Tours, Earthwatch Institute, Road Scholars, Semester at Sea, the Cultural Traveler and TraveLearn Tours.

I stuck my toe in the learning-vacation waters by signing up for a 2_-week trip to China with TraveLearn (Hawley, PA; phone 800/235-9114, Offered through the Office for Continuing Education at the University of South Carolina-Aiken and escorted by a faculty member, it was a smashing success. Accommodations all were first class, the food was excellent, our guides were knowledgeable, and the university lectures were most informative.

Why China?

My interest in China stemmed from the fact that the country is an ever-growing global economic presence and I wanted to learn how a basically feudal, socialist, “group think” society can sprint so fast into the capitalistic, individualistic future.

There is no question that all of China is lurching headlong into the 21st century, both at home and through foreign investments, making no distinction among the good, the bad and the ugly. Industries are using so much concrete, there is a world shortage, and the building crane has become the national bird.

The educational system is churning out millions of well-educated, intelligent and ambitious young workers who want what everyone else wants: the good life. Only 55 years ago, 90% of the population was illiterate; today, 99% of those enrolled in the compulsory nine years of schooling (including English classes) finish, and graduation from a university is their ticket to a new life.

Shanghai is a model of Western modernism. Bold glass-and-steel skyscrapers crowd former farmlands, housing untold numbers of foreign and local businesses. Concrete-block apartment buildings, home to some 17 million people, sprout to the horizon.

The sights

Tips on traveling in China

• Summer is a blast furnace, and winter is a freezer. Fall is the best time to visit and spring, the second best.

• Negotiate the price for everything. Even in the tourist stores where you are told the price is fixed, it is not.

• You can get a massage for half the price of what you pay at home. Most hotels have massage facilities, but don’t be afraid to go into one of the many massage salons on the street, especially for a foot massage. I got an excellent massage for half the hotel rate. Be sure the massage descriptions and prices are in English.

• Take your own toilet paper with you when you leave the hotel. If there is a “WC concierge,” she might hand you only one tiny piece of paper.

• Don’t even try to find a nice wine. If you have a favorite wine, chances are it won’t taste anything like it does at home. All the local beers are excellent, however.

The Shanghai Museum is a “must visit” with its outstanding collection of ancient pottery, paintings, bronzes and sculpture. I’d also recommend a stroll along Nanjing Road and window-shopping in the Shanghai Centre.

Beijing, the capital, seemed to me more like a living museum. While it has its share of new highrises, they soar above the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and other historical remains of past dynasties. Even though Mao Zedong died in 1976, and with him the horrific Cultural Revolution, his portrait still hangs on a government building and his remains lie in state in Tiananmen Square.

The Great Wall stands among civilization’s most formidable feats, stretching like a dragon on impossibly narrow ridges for thousands of miles (the actual mileage reported varies, depending on the source).

If you can arrange a visit to a more remote gate than Badaling (there are eight within a few hours of Beijing), by all means do so. Badaling is the closest to Beijing, so most tour companies include this gate on their itineraries. Renovations there have made it easy to walk along the wall, but the thousands of tourists — Chinese and foreign alike — make walking a shoulder-to-shoulder group endeavor.

Badaling is the epitome of kitsch, with tacky vendor stalls, in-your-face shopping opportunities, fun rides and even a molty camel and a drugged-looking horse on which to have your picture taken. I found little opportunity for reflection.

In Beijing, ask your guide to arrange a visit to a hutong. Only a few of these fascinating little alleyways lined with courtyard houses in Old Beijing have escaped the developer’s wrecking ball.

More highlights

Xi’an, a few hours’ flight inland from Beijing, is a charming ancient city with attractive, modern parks. Lying at one end of the Silk Road, this site was the capital under 13 dynasties, stretching from the 11th century B.C. to the mid-10th century A.D.

Xi’an is home to the fascinating 8,000 life-size Terra-cotta Warriors and their horses, still standing in battle formation to guard the unopened tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin Dynasty. The modern museum protects thousands of statues and other relics that depict the history of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.).

The Yangtze

Another major tourist draw in China is the Yangtze River, the third longest in the world (behind the Amazon and the Nile). Cruise ships make their way upstream and down, motoring between Wuhan and Chongqing. Our 5-star Princess Jeannie offered plenty to do on board, in addition a number of shore excursions.

The massive Three Gorges Dam project, due for completion in 2009, will forever change the landscape of a rich agricultural region and the lives of 1/15th of the Earth’s population. Like everything else in China, the scope of the dam is gigantic. Waters rise 600 miles behind the dam, flooding farmlands and forcing the relocation of over a million rural people in an area half the size of California.

Negotiating the five locks at the Three Gorges Dam currently takes the better part of an afternoon.

Upstream of the dam lies the famed Three Gorges, where we slipped between narrow walls of tall, rounded limestone mountains jutting out of the muddy waters. Area farming is carried out on terraces cut into the steep mountainsides, with a pagoda or two nestled in the green forests.

The 900-pound panda

I found the cities of China too big to wrap my mind around (how do you find your way around a city of 40 million people?), and the prospect of millions of well-educated graduates finding city jobs seemed incomprehensible. At the end of my visit, my brain was stuffed with an enormous amount of facts and figures and the country’s grand plans, yet the dichotomies of China remained unanswered.

I do know that the government has set itself inexorably on a path of global involvement, if not dominance. I don’t think anyone knows what the country will look like even a decade from now.

One hopes that as China becomes the 900-pound panda that can do whatever it wants, the long-held Confucian belief in the balance of yin and yang is not left behind.