It’s been five years since we visited China the first time. I was curious to see how it may have changed in that time. It’s hard to compare given we didn’t visit the same cities. And yet the changes are clear…in a good way. Surprising China Shanghai to Chongqing.
Five years ago we visited Beijing and Xian. It was winter and very cold. This time we visited Shanghai and took a Yangtze River cruise from Yichang to Chongqing. It is autumn now, and the end of the rainy season. It was very humid, warm and wet.
Surprising Shanghai. A gorgeous city. Sparkling clean, efficient and beautiful architecture. More open and spread out than Beijing, Shanghai is for the most part a new city – built as China’s financial center over the past thirty years. If you were here thirty years ago none of this would have been here.
Luckily though, the Chinese government saw fit to save bits and pieces of the ancient old town, Yu Garden, and it is preserved in a beautiful and authentic way. It is a very popular part of the city. Nearby is the People’s Park, another beautiful spot in Shanghai where the local people enjoy this large green natural place in the middle of the big city. On weekends People’s Park is where parents set up Marriage Market to find spouses for their unmarried adult children. Parents playing matchmaker is a very Chinese thing, still accepted today.
The Bund is the most popular spot in Shanghai, for shopping, dining, strolling and enjoying the amazing view of the Huang Pu River and the remarkably beautiful architectural masterpieces beyond. To really enjoy this area we highly recommend seeing it at night. Starting at 7:00 pm each evening the buildings are all lit up in a spectacular light show not to be missed. The best way to see it in its entirety is to take one of the evening boat tours. It was a highlight of our visit.
Another fascinating Shanghai neighborhood is Tianzifang. This former residential neighborhood has been preserved in it’s original form and now houses a remarkable variety of art shops from silk to silver.
Day Trips from Shanghai
We enjoyed two separate day trips from Shanghai. You could do these both on one day if you are short on time. Whatever you do, don’t choose one or the other. Both are remarkable and not to be missed.
First we visited Suzhou, home of one of the most famous gardens in China, the Lingering Garden. This absolutely beautiful garden was once a family home for a rich merchant. Suzhou is also home to Pingjiang Road, an ancient street and site of the original town which was once a commodities hub where people traded and lived.
Our second day trip was to the remarkable water town of Zujiaojia, one of my favorite places. The ancient town, now a tourist hub, is well preserved and often called the Asian Venice for it’s dozens of bridges, waterfront merchants and houses and boats that transport people and products. It is a must see for it’s antiquity and tranquility. We particularly enjoyed a lovely tea break at a famous Chinese tea house right on the water.
Yangtze River Cruise
Surprising Yangtze. Seeing China’s Yangtze, the third longest river in the world, after the Nile and the Amazon, has been on my bucket list for a long time. Traditional Chinese art often depicts the Yangtze and it’s beautiful gorges shrouded in fog. This is what we set out to see.
Our journey began from the Honggiao train station where we boarded the bullet train to Yichang. During more than seven hours on the train we passed through dozens of big cities. China is remarkable in that even its smallest cities are home to 100,000 people.
From the Yichang train station we drove by car another hour to our boat, the MV Sophia of Victoria Cruises, on the Yangtze. This small river cruise ship can have a maximum of 200 guests, but on our cruise there was about 100 people. Our room was small but comfortable, the food was excellent and the staff was superior.
The first day we enjoyed two different excursions with the ship in port in Yichang, just above the famous Three Gorges Dam. Here the Yangtze no longer feels like the Yangtze of old. Above the dam the river is now a reservoir and quite placid.
We toured the dam, an engineering marvel in itself, although the more remarkable thing to me is how many hundreds of thousands of people were moved from their ancestral villages. The government built entire new cities above the high water line, demolishing ancient towns and moving everyone to new homes, new jobs and new communities. The undertaking is mind-boggling.
In a small effort to preserve the old way of life for tourist purposes, one village below the dam was preserved and named the Three Gorges Tribe site. Although local people no longer live here, locals are employed to represent the ancient way of life. It was very well presented and the natural gorge site itself was stunningly beautiful.
Seeing the famous Three Gorges as well as a special small boat cruise up the Shennong Creek were the highlights of our time on the Yangtze. I wish I could have seen these places before the dam flooded and raised the water level by 175 meters. An astonishing amount. But seeing it still today was amazing and beautiful. There are few places in China where you can just enjoy unpopulated scenery. Along the Yangtze I was astounded by the gigantic cities that appeared over and over as we cruised upstream. Cities of millions of people. It was the most unexpected of all the things we saw. And yet, there were also stretches of the river where no humans lived. Particularly the stretches of the Wu Gorge and the Qutang Gorge. Absolutely beautiful.
The MV Sofia was a wonderful ship and on two nights we enjoyed fantastic Chinese dance presentations from the remarkably talented crew. Colorful costumes, beautiful music and exquisitely presented dances were an unexpected bonus to our time aboard. On our final night, we also enjoyed a extraordinary final dinner. The food throughout our cruise was nothing short of amazing, but the final dinner was spectacular. A Chinese feast fit for an Emperor.
Our Yangtze River Cruise ended in Chongqing, China’s largest city. Another city that has seen unprecedented growth over the past thirty years. Often called the Foggy City, Chongqing lived up to its name during our short time there. We were escorted to the brand new Chongqing International Airport for our flight to Taiwan.
Surprising China Shanghai to Chongqing
Our two weeks in China gave us an opportunity to see first-hand the changes in this country; efforts being made for the environment including many electric scooters and cars and major recycling and litter control. Additionally China seems to be in a state of constant development and construction as this country of 1.4 billion people works to manage itself.
My final take-away is that the Chinese people are happy. They are provided housing and jobs and can be entrepreneurial and educated. They care little about politics but are patriotic. They love nature and family and socializing with friends. They are proud, modest, kind and many speak excellent English.
China is a huge country, about the same size as the USA but with 1.4 billion people compared to the USA’s 330 million. It’s hard to wrap your head around it until you see the cities…thousands and thousands of 30 story apartment buildings everywhere you look. Surprising China Shanghai to Chongqing.
There is more here I want to see. So we will surely return. Surprising China has more surprises to share.
Thanks for following our adventures in Asia. Lots more to come! Please pin or share our blog. Thank you! Xiexie. 谢谢
Great commentary and lovely photos!September 27, 2019 at 2:11 pm
Thank you.September 27, 2019 at 5:44 pm
I went to China for the first time three years ago thinking it would be a one and done trip but like you, China captivated me and I know there’s so much more to see. Sounds like we both will be back there in the future!September 28, 2019 at 4:53 am
I agree. It is better than the media portrays it. I will be back.September 28, 2019 at 3:12 pm
You give such a wonderful play-by-play that has me rethinking my desire to visit China. The Three Gorges Damn would be first on my list of places to visit. Thank you for sharing your perspective.September 28, 2019 at 7:16 am
Thanks!!September 28, 2019 at 3:11 pm
On our trip to China, we also did a Yangtze River Cruise. This was just before the Three Gorges dam was complete and not much was underwater yet. Yes, a most amazing and intriguing part of China. Thanks for the photos!September 28, 2019 at 10:41 am
Great to hear from you Carla!September 28, 2019 at 3:10 pm
Thanks for taking me to China 🙂 I have only seen Yangtze river through books I read. The photos are lovely.September 29, 2019 at 10:00 pm
You are welcome!! Glad you can follow along!October 3, 2019 at 3:18 pm