Parks and Plenty of Recreation

China’s Wulingyuan scenic area is ripe with natural wonders and cultural history

By: By Norman Sklarewitz

Great Escapes to Asia

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Ideal Itineraries

A Cook’s Tour
For a true cultural experience in China, why not eat your way through the country? China is home to a myriad of different cuisines and delicacies, from prized bird’s nest soup to steaming char siu bao (meat-filled buns). But if it’s heat your clients are seeking, suggest a tour of the country’s western Sichuan region, famed for its hot and spicy dishes.

A culinary tour of Sichuan with Panda Travel USA includes a special tofu banquet; visits to the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, the Sichaun Opera; and the Wuliangye Wine Manufactory; as well as an introduction to some of the region’s most famous restaurants — Hongxing Restaurant and Baguo Buyi. Cities visited include: Chengdu, Leshan, Huanglong, Jiuzhaigou and Guangzhou. The trip also features a stop at the Chengdu Panda Base. 

Majestic China Panorama
Clients who want to experience China’s ancient treasures and pristine landscapes and get a feel for its modern metropolises, without having to sail the Yangtze, will appreciate Ritz Tours’ 15-day, 13-night Majestic China itinerary. The trip includes a visit to the Great Wall, a Tang Dynasty Stage Show, a cruise down the Li River and a visit to Hong Kong for some shopping. 

Fragrant Fields
A whirlwind, 12-day, air-inclusive trip with Champion Holidays takes clients from the capital to its surrounding imperial cities. The tour begins in Beijing, then it’s off to Shanghai, one of China’s most cosmopolitan port cities. There, travelers can immerse themselves in the old-world architecture of Zhujiajiao, a nearby village, before they head for Suzhou, the Venice of the East. After a cruise of the Grand Canal, the tour travels to Hangzhou, home to the scenic West Lake, where guests will visit a tea orchard. After Hangzhou, the trip takes clients to Nanjing to visit the Ming Tomb and Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s Mausoleum. The itinerary ends with a stay in Shanghai. 

New & Noteworthy

Boutique Beijing
Going against the trend of big-name hotel chains staking claim to China’s major cities, The Opposite House opened last month in Beijing, part of a new wave of boutique hotels making their debut in the East. The luxury hotel, part of the newly formed Swire Hotels, opened on Aug. 15 and features a striking emerald green design that blends old and new. Along with the hotel, the new property also boasts three restaurants, two bars and exclusive, VIP private rooms. Swire Hotels plans to open a 117-room luxury hotel in Pacific Palace, Hong Kong, next summer and a 100-room hotel at TaiKoo Hui in Guangzhou in 2010. 

Historic Shopping Street Reopens in Beijing
Just one day before the start of the Beijing Summer Olympics, the Qianmen shopping street reopened after more than a year-long renovation. The street, which lies along the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, is home to a number of local favorites, such as the Quanjude roasted duck restaurant and the Zhangyiyuan tea house. Renovations, meant to restore the street to its former glory during the Qing dynasty, included the demolishment of old buildings and the addition of a newly paved road and restored tramway.

Hotel Packages

Aloft Beijing Haidan
Now through Dec. 31, clients who book a consecutive two-night stay at Aloft Beijing Haidan will receive a 20 percent discount. The offer applies to arrivals between Thursday and Saturday and consecutive reservations for the same offer will not be honored. Aloft, is the brainchild of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and features a new twist on airport hotels with its funky, modern designs and hi-tech features. 

Shangri-La Hotel, Guangzhou
The Guangzhou Escape package at the Shangri-La Hotel, Guangzhou, is perfect for those seeking a relaxed, leisurely and luxurious stay in the southern city formerly known as Canton. The package includes a two-night stay in a Deluxe room, daily breakfast buffet for two at Wok Too Cafe and approximately $40 to $80 in dining credits, depending on the number of guests. Rates start at about $442 per night, based on single occupancy and at about $516 per night, based on double occupancy. The offer is available through Dec. 30. 

Sofitel Shanghai Hyland
The recently renovated Sofitel Shanghai Hyland, which is located on Nanjing Road in the city’s commercial center, is offering an Air of Romance package especially for couples who want both a city experience and romantic retreat all in one. The package includes romantic accommodations, in-room breakfast, a bouquet of red roses or a box of chocolates, a bottle of champagne and late check-out. The offer is valid only for arrivals on Friday, Saturdays and Sundays and rates vary according to booking dates. 

Local Favorites

Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong
If your clients want to escape to the beach, you might suggest this tranquil beach located a little more than a mile north of Shek O, a beachside town in southern Hong Kong. Here at Big Wave Bay, you can catch a glimpse of one of eight prehistoric rock carvings on the headland above it.

The Bund, Shanghai
Shanghai’s famous waterfront esplanade dazzles with its colonial-style architecture and nighttime light displays. As one of China’s most famous streets, it’s a must for any visitor to the port city best known as the Paris of the East. High-end boutiques, shopping arcades and restaurants are sure to entice clients who seek a leisurely and authentic stroll through the city.

The Casinos of Macau
Often dubbed the Las Vegas of the East, Macau is home to a number of large-scale casinos, making it the gambling paradise of China and Hong Kong. Casinos run the gamut from old-time favorites like the Casino Lisboa to opulent — and expensive — establishments such as the Crown Macau and Sands Macau. A short excursion to Macau from Hong Kong is a favorite activity for locals and visitors alike willing to try their luck.

Tian Fu Famous Teas
No Chinese meal is complete without tea and some of the best tea in Kunming is found at this local shop, which offers Yunnanese tea and numerous varieties of green and black loose leaf teas.

Crescent Moon Muslim Restaurant, Beijing
China is home to a number of Chinese Muslims (Xinjiang) and in Beijing, there’s a Xinjiang eatery on almost every street. Clients who want an authentic taste of Xinjiang cuisine should head to this courtyard restaurant that specializes in lamb skewers and dapanji, a noodle dish made with chicken, potatoes, peppers and vegetables. Crescent Moon is located in the Dongcheng neighborhood.

This city is best known for its legendary West Lake. Arguably the world’s most famous, the freshwater lake is surrounded by mountains on three sides and is associated with some of the country’s best-known scholars and heroes. It is central to other scenic areas, including the Yellow Dragon Cave Park and the Hangzhou Botanic Gardens.

Destination Resources

Beijing Tourism Administration 
China National Tourism Administration 
China National Tourist Office 
Hong Kong Tourism Board 
Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administrative Commission 


Oct. 11-14: Jingdezhen International Pottery and Porcelain Festival and World Pottery Technique Competition, Jianxi Province. Crafty clients will appreciate a visit to the porcelain capital of China where pottery traditions more than 1,000 years old continue to this day. The festival features pottery from around the world, demonstrations of porcelain making techniques and tea-making and special tours.

Oct. 31-Nov. 8: Guilin Scenery Festival. Guilin is famous for its epic landscapes and this festival celebrates them with an opening ceremony and fall lantern festival on the Lijiang River. Clients can partake in an evening tour of the river and a bonfire party on Love Island, where folksongs and dances, along with a barbecue, will be held.

Jan. 5-Feb. 5: Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, Heilongjiang Province. Harbin becomes a winter wonderland when it hosts its famous ice lantern and snow sculpture exhibition and contests, among other icy activities such as winter swimming, ice hockey and skiing contests. During the month, visitors have a chance to go to a film festival, art exhibitions and watch folk performances and wedding ceremonies held on the ice.

Jan. 15-Feb. 29: Beijing longqing Gorge Ice and snow festival. Ice lantern displays, fireworks displays set off on ice, fishing and other ice sports entertain the crowds in Longqing Gorge in Yangqing County, Beijing. Visitors are encouraged to participate in the ice and snow revelry festival and visit the Great Wall at Badaling and the Kangxi grasslands as well.

Given the richness of China’s culture and its almost endless variety of historical and ancient religious sites to visit, it would seem that going to a national park while on a trip to this fascinating country would be of marginal interest at best.

But like so many aspects about China, you should keep an open mind. A singular surprise awaits the more adventurous — and relatively fit — traveler in what is known as the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area. Don’t let the name suggest some minor Kodak photo op. That’s not the way things are in this part of southwestern Hunan Province.

Waterfalls are numerous at Wulingyuan. // (c) Norman Sklarewitz
Waterfalls are numerous at Wulingyuan.

The scenic area encompasses some 500 square miles. Within it are the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve and the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve. For administrative reasons, the three separate, natural areas were combined in 1988 to create this new destination entity.

Together, they make up the first scenic area in China to be afforded the status of a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1992. The recognition is well-deserved, as the area features world-class geological formations, waterfalls, valleys and peaks. Even visitors who have never set foot in the area may sense a feeling of familiarity, a notion that they’ve seen these quartz and sandstone pillars wrapped in mists and clouds before. They have, in classical Chinese scrolls and paintings — Wulingyuan seems to have been created for artists.

The main entrance to the park is about a 90-minute drive over a good road from the province’s main city, Zhangjiajie. Technically, the entire park is considered part of the city. Since it has a new and relatively well-equipped international airport, Zhangjiajie is a main starting point for tourists headed to the park, many from South Korea. Only about a three-hour flight from Incheon International Airport, Zhangjiajie has become extremely popular with Koreans on short holidays. Until quite recently, the only hotels up to international standards to accommodate park visitors were in Zhangjiajie. That’s changed now.

Despite the park’s relatively remote location, its visitors can now enjoy standards that rival major Chinese cities. The Wulingyuan International Resort, which claims a five-star rating, recently opened and is located just a couple minutes’ drive from the park’s entrance.

The property consists of three buildings with 482 guestrooms encircling a large outdoor pool. Among its in-room amenities are international satellite television, free high-speed broadband Internet access and free Wi-Fi in public areas. An expansive, western-style buffet breakfast is served in its Premier Western Restaurant. While it’s hard to compare to the spectacular scenery found within the park, the buffet is a high point of its own to a weary Western traveler.

It’s quite essential to remember that experiencing the park can involve some extremely arduous walking and climbing. It starts right at the entrance. There, visitors stroll for about a half-mile down a broad, well-paved lane leading through the verdant hills. The first warning sign of things to come takes the form of groups of young men with sedan chairs, standing about in clusters hustling clients. Those chairs aren’t just some touristy gimmick, though, like taking a rickshaw ride in Singapore or Beijing just for fun.

It will soon become apparent, painfully so in some cases, why this service is available. Up the road, tourists turn off to ascend the hillside via a narrow pathway of stone steps. If your guide tells you it’s just a short walk, don’t believe him.

To reach the next point on the tour involves 144 steps up the steep hillside. Do the math. One story in an ordinary building involves maybe 14 or 15 steps. You’re going to climb up the equivalent of a 14-story building. Do that lately? Not likely. That’s why the sedan chair boys do a rather lively business, hauling visitors whose legs give out sooner than their pride.

The end of the climb, though, is an experience worth the effort. It’s Baofeng Lake. For a sophisticated traveler, a ride in a little tourist boat on a lake might sound like something of no
particular interest. However, passing up one of these excursions would be a mistake.

Cruising around the lake provides vistas along the entire shoreline that are movingly lyrical in their misty beauty. One typically effusive description offered by local tourist officials is that the experience is "like traveling through a painting." It’s actually an apt observation. There is no other way to be so close up — and comfortable in the process — to the distinctive sandstone and quartz pinnacles, promontories and dramatic forested peaks than being aboard one of the little boats as it slowly makes its way along the 40-acre lake. The little green boats and the landing are designed to reflect traditional Chinese architecture.

Additionally, there’s a concerted effort to familiarize visitors with local ethnic minorities who live by the lake. Little huts reflecting Tujia village design are strategically positioned along the shore. At each hut, the tour boats slow down and a young man or young lady dressed in the distinctive dress of their minority comes outside to welcome visitors. They sing a short song, wave goodbye to the picture-snapping passengers and the boats resume their tour. In a way, it’s a little patronizing to see the young people pop out like birds in a cuckoo clock, but most tourists don’t seem to mind at all.

Beyond Baofeng Lake awaits another experience involving a cable-car ride up the mountainside. And once again, as they ride up, passengers are treated to views of ethereal beauty.