Our three-week itinerary around China was arranged through Pacific Bestours, which booked the hotels and internal flights and arranged for the two of us and another couple to be met by a guide and driver in each city.

We flew from Washington, DC to San Francisco and then on to Beijing, a huge capital city that is much more modern than we imagined. National Day was approaching, so Tiananmen Square was being decorated with elaborate floral designs and signs promoting Beijing as Olympics host city.

Among the sites visited were the Temple of Heaven (and the park surrounding it where older people gather and play card games), the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace of the last empress. We also took a pedicab tour of the hutong areas where extended families have lived in the same compounds for hundreds of years and visited with a family that resides in three rooms of a quadrangle building. Relatives live in the other homes, all part of a property that has been in the family for four generations. Into one 10x10 room is shoehorned a full media center, PC, refrigerator, bed (the son sleeps here), sofa, chairs and a folding table. The next room is the parent’s bedroom; then the combo kitchen/bath/laundry room. These are not poor people. They prefer the cramped hutongs to some high-rise where you don’t know the folks across the hall. These traditional homes are disappearing as China becomes very modern very fast. But, in the cities and towns, even the poorest people seem to have enough to eat and wear decent clothes.

We spent a day at a portion of the Great Wall, which undulates up and down mountains with guardposts every so often. Walking along the wall consists of climbing very steep steps. Nearly every visitor was Chinese and they handled the large, uneven steps very easily—it must be the bicycling that builds up their leg muscles. If the family unit did not consist of two parents and a single child, then the Chinese must have been from Taiwan, the United States or Hong Kong. We also visited the Ming Tombs.

Near our hotel was an amazing street of food vendors, Wangfujing. We ate a few things without quite knowing what they were—but managed to avoid the recognizable (but unappetizing, to us) scorpions, octopus, larvae and baby-birds-on-a-stick. In Beijing and other cities we were often approached by older Chinese students seeking to practice their English, and many wanted to have their pictures taken with us. University students recognized the Voice of America because they were encouraged to listen by their English teachers. One group of young women squealed when David introduced “the news in Special English.”

We flew next to Shanghai, a bustling city with a skyline of new, modern buildings (along with the European-style “Bund”) and a love of free enterprise. We enjoyed the Shanghai Museum’s extensive exhibits of Chinese calligraphy, painting and seals. On our own we happened upon a street market and were followed around by children who laughed as we marveled at the live chickens and the fish being gutted. We ended the day at a show by the justly famous Shanghai acrobats.

We went out early to look for residents doing their morning exercises, and found a group of locals who start each day with exercises and ballroom dancing on the sidewalk. Lorraine danced with a sprightly 83-year-old Chinese man.

We were driven out to Zhouzhang, a picturesque town that used to be on an island—so it was spared development. Tourists take gondola rides along the perfect canals. We then took a boat up the Grand Canal to Suzhou, a much larger city that (like Zhouzhang) also claims to be “the Venice of the East.” The Grand Canal was a massive public works project centuries ago that allowed boats to travel between Shanghai and Beijing in just 40 days.

At Suzhou’s Garden of the Master of Nets we had an evening tour which featured music and opera performances in different areas throughout the garden. The next day we toured another one of the city’s sumptuous gardens and visited women doing the silk embroidery that Suzhou is famous for. We flew to Wuhan, toured the city, then took a bus to Shashi to board our Yangtze River cruise ship, our home for the next four days.

The Victoria Cruise Line “Blue Whale” had perhaps 150 passengers and nearly as many crew members. The passengers were both Western and Asian—and some of the Asians were Americans and some were Chinese, so you didn’t know which language to use. All the announcements were in English, Mandarin and German. Each room had a big picture window where we could watch China go by, and the public rooms of the ship offered a variety of games and arts demonstrations.

There are signs all along the Yangtze banks marking 135 and 175 meters above sea level. The first level will be flooded by the new dam in about 2003, the higher in 2009. The Chinese are building new bridges and new housing for the people who have to move — sometimes entire towns.

The Three Gorges were as magnificent as advertised: sheer rock faces alternating with steep green hills, all rising abruptly from the water. The river could become so narrow that only one boat could travel through at a time. In addition to ferry boats, the river was full of barges and sampans. We took a sampan-shaped boat that could navigate up the Daning River to the “three lesser gorges” to see more of the same kind of landscape, but on a narrower, wilder waterway. Through much of the excursion we could see small square holes that had been carved into the sheer rock faces 2,000 years ago. Stakes had been put in those holes to support a walkway that allowed foot traffic all along the river.

We visited the enormous dam being constructed to control the river, provide power and replace many dirty, coal-burning generators. In addition to a series of locks for large boats, there will be a “ship elevator” for smaller craft.

Along the river we stopped in the Sichuan town of Wanxian and walked through its bustling and colorful street market.

The four-day boat trip upriver ended in Chongqing, a city built into the side of a steep mountain. Near shops and markets, men wait to be hired to carry goods they sling from poles balanced on their shoulders. We walked through the busy streets to Luo Han Si, a much-used Buddhist temple. Worshippers gave offerings at any of 100 different carvings of Buddhist disciples. Each one featured a different face, expression, costume, coloring and hand position—and each one promised to grant you health, or riches, or absolution or some specific thing. It was exotic and colorful—quite out of character for the atheistic society some of our guides had been describing.

Chongqing has a “Times Square” featuring bright neon signs, big TV screens on the sides of buildings, huge crowds, loud music, plus commerce and advertising everywhere—all, ironically, around the city’s “Liberation Monument.” It was National Day—the start of a seven-day holiday for most Chinese in honor of the declaration of the Peoples Republic 10/1/49. So, of course, that’s when the new McDonalds opened. We went by and had a Big Mac, Double Cheeseburger, fries and a shake...exactly like at home, except slightly less expensive and boasting many more employees (to greet us, make sure we had a menu in English, help us to our table, and give us pointers like “it’s a better value to get a combo meal”).

Outside Chongqing, while driving to Dazu, we saw beautiful, terraced rice fields where farmers still plow with water buffalo, and fields of lotus (much of the plant is eaten—we were served fried lotus root, which was quite tasty). Dazu is famous for its huge Buddhist rock carvings showing the cycle of life and death and images of hell and paradise. Its remote location saved it from being defaced or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

After our flight to Xian (China’s capital under several dynasties), we were rewarded with a long visit with the Terracotta Warriors, an army of lifesize clay soldiers, horses and chariots buried around the tomb of Emperor Qin 22 centuries ago and rediscovered in 1974 (one of the farmers who found the site while digging a well was autographing books at the gift shop). Perhaps in honor of the National Day holiday, everyone was allowed to take photos inside the pavilions. We also marveled at other terracotta figures from many other dynasties (smaller sculptures, buried with the aristocracy) at the Provincial Museum, along with bronze and porcelain pieces.

Despite its proud history, China has not been very good about saving its past. Not only were many sites and objects destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, even today city walls are obliterated to make room for a new highway or skyscraper. So it was nice to be in Xian, where we walked on the old city walls and saw several pagodas. Day concluded with a Tang Dynasty show and a great dumpling banquet.

The flight to Guilin took us to southern China, which is lush and green. The region is filled with jutting hills so familiar to us from Chinese paintings. After visiting the formations within Reed Flute Cave, we took an evening boat ride to watch the cormorant fishermen. A few men still train birds to fish for them. They tie a cord around the cormorants’ necks so the birds cannot swallow larger fish...then when they catch one, the fisherman coaxes the bird back to the bamboo raft and dislodges the fish from its gullet. They work at night by lantern light, since that attracts fish to the raft. Most of the fishermen have switched to raising fish in fish farms, but some use cormorants full-time and the ones we saw get an extra cut by doing their work alongside tour boats.

The countryside around Guilin along the Li River is just as beautiful as the familiar images in Chinese paintings. We are reminded of what the great Tang Dynasty poet Han Yu wrote centuries ago (here, let me ‘Han Yu’ the tour book so you can look it up): “The river is a blue ribbon of silk...the hills are hairpins of jade.”

We enjoyed four hours traveling down that silk ribbon in a riverboat, mouths agape at the relentless beauty of the scenery. The day was cloudy...but the weather only created the perfect mist caressing the peaks of the green hills that were lined up along the skyline like the scales on a dragon’s back. The effect is quite dreamlike. Happily, the boat company does not break the spell by providing any sort of commentary...we just stand on the top deck and watch the hills (and a few small villages) go by. The air (finally!) was sweet and the water clear.

Some people on our particular boat were traveling together (along with a professor) as MIT alumni. However, these crack engineers could not quite explain the workings of a mysterious Chinese teacup. We bought a replica to amaze people back home. Pour in half a cup of tea and nothing strange occurs. But become greedy and let the tea reach as high as the dragon’s mouth, and every drop of the tea spills out the bottom...leaving an empty cup and providing a good lesson.

Our boat trip ended in the small town of Yangshuo, 50 miles downriver from Guilin. We then traveled into the countryside in a sidecar attached to a motorbike. Bumping along back roads, we passed fields of rice, taro and water chestnuts. We came face-to-face with many water buffalo (the guide said they had a wonderful life on the farms, where they only have to work four weeks a year). We also saw some real poverty amid the beauty of the fields and hills. We visited the home of a farm family, where one electric bulb dangled from a web of wiring that was, uh, hardly up to code. They were proud to have a mechanical threshing machine to help separate out the rice. Nothing went to waste. The leavings from the threshing machine fed the chickens. They rake seaweed from the river and let it dry to feed the water buffalo. The pigs are fed the water hyacinths that grow like weeds.

While in Guilin we had a number of chops carved as gifts, and attended a rather hokey show highlighting minority cultures. China is 93 percent Han Chinese so they grant minorities some extra rights (two babies per couple, for example)—but they clearly stop short of satisfying the Tibetans and the Uighers, for example.

It is expensive to fly to Hong Kong so nearly all tours pass through Guangzhou (Canton). The highlight there was a visit to another busy Buddhist temple, where we could look through a haze of incense at hundreds of Chinese who seemed to take their religion very seriously. Our guide claimed that most of them are not real believers. He says they go to the temple, say, before an exam or while negotiating a business deal—essentially because “it couldn’t hurt.” The traditions do live on—especially in one large room covered with bookmark-sized spaces. We were told that people who pay approximately $500 have a red ribbon in “their” space, arranged from ceiling to floor by birth date. After they die, their picture is placed in the space and relatives visit the room to remember you.

After a two-hour jet-boat ride, we were thrust into modern civilization in Hong Kong. What a jolt! The various islands look like any tropical isles—with lush, green mountains rising from the sea—only someone built Manhattan on the shoreline. Not only are there more luxury cars per capita than anywhere in the world, but status is so important here that the millionaires purchase license plates filled with auspicious numbers that represent wealth and power.

As you know, Hong Kong is now a Chinese territory. The difference from the mainland is so pronounced, no wonder you have to go through customs when traveling from one to the other. Customs inspectors are especially watchful of the mainland Chinese trying to get into Hong Kong. Guangzhou provides something of a transition—as the mainland’s boomtown in the south, it features a faster pace and an accent on money, including more private cars on the street. But nothing can prepare you for the sudden insertion into 21st century Hong Kong, where the cars are all luxury models and nobody would dream of pedaling a bicycle.

We needed to get some local currency (Hong Kong dollars). For the first time, we could use an ATM. And the first ATM we came across was from our own bank. We stayed at the swankiest hotel of our trip...the legendary Mandarin Oriental. It is beyond description—from the pot of tea draped in a darling tea cozy and placed in our room to greet us...to the breakfast buffet (please observe the dress code) with the freshest and sweetest fruits and juices, the finest pastries and the perfect dim sum, all enjoyed in overstuffed easy chairs.

But, once on the streets, what crowds! There is even one area of Kowloon called Mong Kok, which means “busy place.” Whatever you would like to buy, it is available in Hong Kong and there are masses of people buying it. Several street markets we visited feature low-cost items, including knockoffs, seconds and pirated goods. The person who led a city bus tour told us where to get the best quality pirated goods, especially watches, handbags and scarves. She described a place that SEEMS to be a tailor shop but actually sells Rolex knockoffs that work.

There are several specialty street markets. Today we began at the fish market. No, not for the kind you eat....the kind you put in an aquarium. Many Chinese keep fish in their homes because it helps the feng shui. Along several blocks, each shop sold goldfish, other fish, frogs, turtles, etc.—with many of the finny ones in individual plastic bags of water mounted on large boards.

We then floated through block after block of flower shops, a riot of colors, sweet smells and bustling business. Even exotic (to us) species like lotus were inexpensive. Finally, we rounded a corner, entered a corridor and emerged into about three blocks of shops selling songbirds in cages. From little finches to huge parrots, they were all for sale—and people were buying, taking their birds and their flower arrangements onto the subway.

The metro system was extremely crowded on a late Saturday afternoon. I would hate to see it in rush hour. So many Chinese use the subway that each stop has multiple exits onto various streets. You use a farecard like the DC metro. However, to buy a one-trip card, you go to a machine displaying a map of the system, press the name of the stop you’re going to and the machine shows you how much it costs. Put in some money and you receive the farecard and change.

We did see some of the remaining poverty in Hong Kong in a floating village of boat people. We took a boat out among them to see how they lived—ironically, right alongside an exclusive marina. Also nearby was a huge floating restaurant that can feed about a thousand people at a time. We ended our day as the neon was lighting up the famed shopping street, Nathan Road.

We learned each day during our trip that restaurant meals (at least those served to tourists) always end with watermelon. So here is the watermelon in our banquet: some book recommendations.

Before the trip we read "The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time" by Simon Winchester, who chronicles his 4,000-mile trip upriver. We read two novels about China as we traveled: "A Single Pebble" by John Hersey (about an American who travels up the Yangtze the hard way in the 1920s on a mission to see if the construction of a dam is possible) and "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" by Jung Chang (about three generations of Chinese women from the 1920s to today: the grandmother was at one time a concubine...the mother was a Communist official who fell afoul of the Cultural Revolution...the daughter was a Red Guard who eventually became the first Chinese person to get a PhD in Britain, where she now lives). All three books provided wonderful context for the trip and we heartily recommend them.