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Hotel SearchWe enter through Tiananmen Gate on a broiling summer day, rubbing the doors’ brass bolts for luck, to explore the world’s largest palace complex, 980 halls and shrines capped with curved roofs of golden tiles and ceramic figurines.

When we collapse in a shady spot beneath dragon and phoenix gargoyles, our animated guide offers ribald tales of ancient emperors, “Game of Thrones” like empresses, evil Hamlet style uncles and the veritable army of eunuchs who served them for centuries here in Beijing’s Forbidden City. (The poor eunuchs’ penises were preserved in jars in a special room so they’d meet their families in the afterlife intact, thus saving face.) Go on, we say, go on.

Thirty hours later, we’re in a yurt in Inner Mongolia, staring down a goat. Its horns curl fetchingly from its face, a blue silk scarf dangles from its neck. It is dead, of course; it is dinner. Three tables of revelers gather for the feast, two filled with partying Shanghai officials and one with us North Americans. The local rice wine is flowing, toasts are flying in Mandarin, Mongolian and English, and a three piece band plays a Mongol folk song about love, loss and homesickness over and over again. Later, a bonfire burns under a night sky big and bright as Texas, with more music, fireworks and eventually, yes, karaoke.

Two days on, we’re just outside Datong, China’s coal capital, strolling among 252 caves filled with 2,500 year old masterpieces of Buddhist art. Here at Yungang Grottoes, the 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes range from finger size to 49 feet high. A few retain some of the original paint; others are almost destroyed by light, weather and pollution. One favorite cave features a rare double Buddha in a haunting,
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somehow magical arrangement.

1,700 miles in 12 days

Only halfway through our G Adventures tour of vast, mysterious China, it’s clear I’m on the trip of a lifetime. In the next days, we’ll visit the precarious hanging temples of Mount Heng, the walled streets of Pingyao and Xian’s terracotta warriors before looping back to Beijing for a goodbye dinner. In all, a dizzying 1,700 miles in 12 days.

The terracotta warriors of Xian are part of G Adventures’ Hidden China and Inner Mongolia itinerary.

A less picturesque China, one deplored in the news, is also on view. We see fuming coal factories and nuclear plants, freaky ghost cities of empty high rises and too many gray skies. Often, the air feels thick enough to grab. Still, many spoke to us of the government’s plans for pollution abatement, and for every coal mine we saw there were many more meadows of sunflowers, acres of soybeans, fields of solar panels and mile after mile of wind farms.

This is no trip for the weary. Despite expanded, comfort conscious offerings, they target energetic, budget minded travelers eager for exploits. (Our trip, Hidden China and Inner Mongolia, costs just $1,499.)

Logistics are intense: Two overnight trains on the relatively posh (for China) “soft sleepers,” four well padded bunks to a room. (The first was surprisingly pleasant; the other had dirty sheets.) One seven hour day train on “hard sleepers” six bunk chambers on cars without Western toilets, only little grids for your feet above a hole and a metal grip to hang onto. Many buses, including from Beijing to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, across Inner Mongolia’s gorgeous grasslands and along Xian’s bottleneck route to the terracotta warriors. And one fab 186 mph train ride from Xian to Beijing. Giddyap.

In accordance with G Adventures’ sustainability ethos, we stay in locally owned hotels. No chocolates on these pillows. Breakfast generally involves noodle soup, millet mush and a salty, milky beverage called red tea. We carry our own bags, including mandatory toilet paper and hand sanitizer, take subways and pay for many of our own meals, most of which are fantastic. Each night finds us sweaty and tired and stunned by the beautiful strangeness of it all.
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