Outside Norway: A fusion of ancient and modern in China

Photo: Charlie fong / Wikimedia
The corner of the Forbidden City, which housed emperors and their households for some 500 years until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.

Arlene & Thor Larsen
Fishkill, N.Y.

Ever since we took a family vacation to Epcot Center in Orlando, we became hooked on the idea of walking on the Great Wall of China. The China Pavilion’s movie-in-the-round theater placed us in a helicopter as it soared over the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Yangtze River Gorge, and all the major sites of this inscrutable nation.

A good friend recommended Pacific Delight Tours out of New York City, and we will forever be in her debt. Pacific Delight offers a wide array of tours to China lasting anywhere from seven to 21 days and ranging from basic to luxurious. One of the best aspects of Pacific Delight was their willingness to adjust the tour to fit specific needs for very little extra money. They provided us with an extra night’s stay in San Francisco before our long flight to Beijing and an extra day in Beijing before the tour started, affording us an opportunity to be totally on our own the first day in the exciting city.

Given the overwhelming road system and traffic, enormous parks and public squares, and the tremendous density of people, first impressions of Beijing can make the individual feel very insignificant. Getting around Beijing on your own is no problem, however, once you show the taxi driver the place you want to go (in Chinese characters) in your guidebook.

The vastness of Tiananmen Square—its 99 acres populated with several thousand visitors—and the foreboding picture of Mao at the entrance to the Forbidden City in the background was simply a stunning sight. The fact that this whole complex has not been disturbed from the last days of the emperor is difficult for Westerners to grasp.

Walking through the grounds of the Temple of Heaven and then driving out to the edge of the city to the Imperial Summer Palace with its many walkways and gardens on the shores of Kunming Lake, you begin to appreciate the immense power and wealth of the emperor.

What excites most visitors even more than the Forbidden City would be the Great Wall, and it does not disappoint! In an effort to stop the enemies from invading, a massive wall (25 feet high and 15 to 30 feet wide) was started, and construction continued through centuries. Viewing the wall from one of its tall towers, it resembles an enormous roller coaster ride in either direction as far as the eye can see.

Photo: Pixabay
The skyline of hyper-modern Shanghai.

The infamous city of Shanghai—often described in the past as seedy and dangerous—has been transformed into a sleek, state-of-the-art city. As you stand on the Bund on the edge of Huangpu River staring over at a whole new addition to the city called Pudong, you will likely gape at the incredible modern architecture of this 21st-century city. In addition, Shanghai has the best collection of Chinese artifacts housed in a state art museum along with the historically significant Yuyuan Gardens with arched bridges, tea pavilions, and stone sculptures.

A luxurious four-day cruise on the Yangtze River followed, and Thor was very thankful for the familiar American food and the relaxing pace. The cruise ship also provided insight into the daily lives of those who live along the river.

The ancient walled city of Xian was the beginning of the famous Silk Road, and its history, like most places in China, goes back thousands of years. It is here that archaeologists unearthed the tombs of several emperors to expose the riches and incredible artistic abilities of these talented and tenacious people. In the most famous tomb, that of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, you stand above the very ground where a farmer first struck a terracotta warrior statue with a plow. Staring down at the vast pit filled with several thousand life-size soldiers, one simply cannot help but gasp at its enormity.

Located on the Li River is the charming small city of Guilin, with many parks, gardens, lakes, and caves filled with Buddhist icons. Guilin is most popular for its cruises on the Li River, however, allowing tourists to view its unusual limestone karst hills, made famous by artists who have painted these dreamy landscapes for centuries.

Our stop off in Guangzhou gave us a glimpse of 19th-century Canton. Shamian Island and its broad boulevards with gardens, hotels, and cafés overlooking the Pearl River offers insight to the lives of the French and British imperialists who first occupied this island in the 1800s.

When you get your first panoramic view of the beautiful city of Hong Kong from the top of the Victoria Peak, you’ll realize that all of the economic statistics about the soaring Chinese wealth have been no exaggeration. The city sits on the expansive Repulse Bay on the edge of the South China Sea surrounded by gently rounded mountains. Hong Kong’s modern industry, glamorous condominiums, and luxurious hotels juxtaposed with antiquated sampans, crowded ferries, and teeming outdoor markets illustrate the rapid growth and transitions being experienced in this dynamic city.

The Pacific Delight tour allowed us to cover a vast section of China and helped us to experience a wide variety of the Chinese way of life, from the rice paddy fields to the high-tech cities. The trip cannot be described as anything but exciting and fantastic.

Arlene was born in Brooklyn and educated in the New York City school system. She studied Education at SUNY New Paltz, receiving her MS in 1984. While living in Woodstock, she was a per diem teacher for the Kingston Consolidated School District. Upon moving to Dutchess County, she became a volunteer with the Child Protection Services education program for 20 years and taught religious education for 14 years.

Born in Stavanger, Thor A. Larsen immigrated to New York City with his parents in 1948. Now retired from a 40-year career as physicist and engineer, Thor draws and paints, and writes travel and arts articles for a local publication. He’s been married to Arlene for 49 years, and they have two adult children and three grandsons.

This article originally appeared in the April 21, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.