Sanctuary Retreats China Cruise: Three Gorges Dam

I wrote about my wonderful three-day cruise on the Yangzi River with Sanctuary Retreats here on National Geographic.  But I wanted to post up more photos, especially the room photos we all love! EVERY room had a balcony which I used throughout the day.

I love river cruising and how the M.S. Yangzi Explorer felt like the perfect floating hotel to take me through one of the world's greatest areas of natural beauty, and now, cultural significance due to the Three Gorges dam.

My room on board

Our departure point in Chongqing

View of Chongqing before leaving

Loved my balcony

Will never forget meeting this man who had been relocated due to the dam

Food market in Fengdu

How cute is this little boy?!

Sailing through the gorges

In a painting

Bridge being built

First glimpse of the Three Gorges dam at night

Hazy day on our visit to the Three Gorges dam

National Geographic: Great Trips: Sailing China's Three Gorges

Sailing the Three Gorges region of China should be on everyone's list to do in their lifetime.  I wrote more about my experience on National Geographic here. I'll be posting more photos from the ship, the M.S. Yangzi Explorer by Sanctuary Retreats, here tomorrow!

China plans to build more than 50 new airports in the next five years, and its population — with nearly 500 million Internet users and counting — is becoming more “global” each day. But to grasp what China meant and means today, you have to get out of the big cities and go rural. Nine hundred million of China’s 1.4 billion people live in the countryside.

China’s bucolic side will feel at once familiar and foreign. Want to step into a landscape painting? Sail through the Three Gorges region on the Yangtze River, famous for its recently constructed dam, the largest on Earth.
The dam, which is about 5 years old, has had an incredible impact on the region’s people and ecology (many villages had to be moved to make way for the new circuitry of the river, and water levels have risen, covering the bases of once-exposed mountains), but the potential for exploring the river valley by boat has made this area a new travel hot spot.
I booked a three-day cruise on the M.S. Yangzi Explorer by Sanctuary Retreats, departing from Chongqing, which is — with 33 million residents — arguably the world’s largest city (ever heard of it?). Okay, the people are spread out over an area the size of England and it takes eight hours to drive across with no traffic…but it can still claim the title. As an added bonus, you’ll set sail at night when the skyline is lit up.

For Western travelers, the Yangzi Explorer is far and away the most comfortable ship to travel on without a sticker-shock price tag. Every room has a balcony, which I took advantage of daily to gaze at the curved swallowtail Chinese roofs and white bloc-style architecture that characterize relocation towns near the dam. I loved the engaging lectures they offered on the cruise (such as “China, The West, & The Mao Years”) — and the early morning tai chi lessons, taught by the ship’s doctor.

Though I was anxious to see the colossal dam, my most memorable experiences happened on the ship, sailing through the Three Gorges, surrounded by thick, cool air and hearing the river water lap against the boat. Early morning brought us through the dramatic Qutang Gorge, followed by the Wu Gorge (or Witches’ Gorge), and finally the longest gorge of Xiling, where the dam is. Your first glimpse of the dam comes at night as the ship sails through five locks.

It was originally thought that the Three Gorges Dam would provide for 12% of China’s electricity needs, but due to a voracious appetite for energy, it can supply only 3%. Media accounts in the West have been decidedly negative, typically focusing on families that have been forced to leave their homes. But of course, nothing is black and white, and there is always another side. It was on a shore excursion to Fengdu where I met relocated families who were glad to move (payment from the government helped). I also learned about the intense flooding that has killed millions in the region, which the dam has alleviated.

The final shore excursion takes you to the best place to view the dam (and take photos of it) along with an exhibit about its construction. The hazy weather didn’t dampen the excitement of seeing something I had heard about for so long. As with most things both applauded and condemned, the dam is worth seeing in person. But it felt even more significant to see the unspoiled terrain of the Three Gorges.

China: The Waldorf-Astoria Shanghai

*In case you missed it, my first piece on my China trip went up on National Geographic here"

As I wrote in my Forbes piece on Ten Exotic Hotel Proposals, The Waldorf-Astoria Shanghai on the Bund "is perfect for those that thrive on Shanghai's futuristic excitement but want a taste of its legacy."  Come along for a view at this absolutely flawless hotel.

The Waldorf-Astoria Shanghai on the Bund at nightOne of my fellow travelers said The Waldorf-Astoria Shanghai on the Bund "moves you like a perfect Little Black Dress." And oh how it does.  From cocktails at The Long Bar (open since 1911) to a spectacular lobby with grand piano and cozy nooks to sit, I loved every minute of my stay. And especially my room, with a view of Pudong's skyline that I stared at every chance I got. The bathroom was the most high-tech of any hotel I've stayed at with a "TOTO" toilet--heated seat and control panel on the wall. Add in heated floors and incredible water pressure, and I wish it was eco-friendly to take 45-minute showers.

My roomMy desk, with view of Pudong beyondPudong, ShanghaiThe hotel is housed within two buildings, one historic (The Waldorf Club) and one new (The Waldorf Tower). The historic building (where the Long Bar is) was previously The Shanghai Club, the most exclusive club when Shanghai was the "Paris of the East" in the 20s and 30s. Because of the two buildings, there are two lobbies. I thought this would be confusing, but it seamlessly melds the past and future in a beautiful way.

Waldorf Club Lobby (Historic Building)

Waldorf Tower Lobby (New Building)

Cozy seating in Waldorf Tower lobby

Loved this open view of the hotel's restaurantMake sure you leave time for a nightly drink at The Long Bar, absolutely one of the world's best hotel bars.

Long BarI'd recommend booking a Tower room with Pudong View, like mine. I loved the rooms in the Waldorf Club and especially the original elevator still in use, but you can get a taste of that in The Waldorf Club lobby and Long Bar.  Here is a taste of the classic decor in a Club Room, versus the Tower Rooms.

Claw-footed tub & dressing tableLiving Area in a Waldorf Club RoomFour-postered Bed in Waldorf Club RoomI also toured one of the Presidential suites in the Waldorf Tower.

Bed in Presidential Suite

Office with a view in the Presidential Suite

Presidential Suite Bathroom

Presidential Suite

Fabulous view of the Bund from the hotel

National Geographic: Welcome to the Wild West of China

I wrote this awhile ago and reading it today takes me straight back to the magical trip I went on with Abercrombie & Kent last fall. Check out my latest piece here, up on National Geographic today!

China's Wild West

“Welcome to the Wild West of China,” my guide said as we touched down in Lijiang after a 4-hour flight from Shanghai. Though I didn’t yet spot any cowboy boots, I was indeed far west in the Yunnan province, at the foothills of the Himalaya; bordered by Laos, Vietnam, and Burma.

For an instant introduction to the region, I attended a performance of “Impressions of Lijiang,” with the sacred Jade Dragon Mountain looming behind the outdoor theater.  It is truly a spectacle of local culture, with hundreds of the minority Naxi people performing songs and dances. And no wonder the show is such a creative triumph; the force behind it is Zhang Yimou, famous for directing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. I couldn’t leave without purchasing a recording of the music that could transport me back to Lijiang over and over again.

The area is difficult to navigate on your own. I traveled on an Abercrombie & Kent itinerary with the warmest expert guide, Gerald Hatherly. He makes centuries of Chinese history come alive daily. A&K is known for making far-flung getaways like the Yunnan accessible — and also happens to be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Banyan Tree was our base in Lijiang, and its architecture reflected the design of the Naxi homes while providing all of the comforts of a great hotel. We rode bikes through a valley of green farmland to the village of Bai Sha, and to the infamous Dr. Ho, who has been credited with healing thousands of people in his 90 years. I received a quick eye scan from Dr. Ho, who instantly pronounced (with Gerald interpreting): “healthy” (whew!). His office contains more than 50 pots filled with therapeutic plants and herbs that he gathers in the mountains. Dr. Ho will proudly show you a letter from the Mayo Clinic thanking him for healing a terminally ill cancer patient. I am convinced that if I return in 30 years, a 120-year-old Dr. Ho will still be there, smiling and healing.

From Lijiang we took a stomach-turning drive through the mountains to Shangri-La, or Zhongdian. An easy hour-long hike through the stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge provided me with a much-needed break in the drive. These mountains are home to Khampa Tibetans, and the area provides a look at Tibetan culture, 13,000 feet above sea level. Each morning, from my room at the Songstam Retreat, I awakened to views of the jagged, snow-capped Himalaya. Gerald introduced me and my group to farmer friends of his in the town of Ringha who welcomed us in for cups of yak butter tea and to meet their new baby. A warning: the tea is a hyper-local delicacy, and makes you feel like you’re drinking a cup full of hot butter!

The hotel overlooks the 17th-century Songzangling Monastery, home to hundreds of monks practicing Tibetan Buddhism. At the bustling monastery, I toured colorful temples and meditation halls covered in murals. I was even blessed by a living Buddha (a very high-ranking lama) in his prayer hall, which kept me on cloud nine all week.

As you make your 2012 travel wish lists, I hope you consider adding this faraway corner of the globe. The Yunnan is woefully under-traveled, with Westerners accounting for only 1% of visitors. This unusual and exotic journey felt like a well-kept secret: until now!