Be forewarned: A trip to China is not like your typical family vacation. It's strenuous, grueling and overwhelming -- and that's all before the pilot switches on the seatbelt sign before liftoff.
But once you land safely at home, you'll readily admit that it was the adventure of a lifetime.
My wife and I started our trip to China on 42nd Street and 12th Avenue in New York City at the Chinese Consulate. Americans entering China require a visa, which costs $50 and takes four days to process.
The wait for the Chinese government's stamp of approval, however, is nothing compared to the mind- (and body-) numbing 14-hour, nonstop flight to the People's Republic.
By the time the plane touched down in Beijing, we had watched three feature films -- two in Chinese with subtitles, one in English -- eaten three meals and two snacks and chased the sun westward across the North Pole. (No, Santa Claus does not live up there, and I know because I wasted many, many hours looking for him.)
Deplaning in Beijing was a joy, and not just because it was a welcome chance to shake the blood clots from our beleaguered legs. It was also our first meeting with our indispensable tour-group guide for the 13-day journey through a very foreign land.
After a refreshing night's stay at the luxurious
Shangri La Hotel, we spent our first morning in Tiananmen Square.
Strolling leisurely around the world's largest square, I was amazed at the widespread commerce taking place right under the watchful gaze of Mao Tse-tung, whose portrait still overlooks Tiananmen.
One can only imagine what Chairman Mao would think if he saw the countless peddlers hawking knockoff watches, hats, fans, postcards and two-bit toys to tourists. China may still be a communist country, but this is surely not Mao's China, I concluded. I then picked up a Beijing Olympics 2008 baseball cap for a single greenback.
Mao would also undoubtedly be surprised by the new national bird in China, the crane -- the construction crane, that is.
Beijing is sprawling with huge condominiums and office towers; the sight of newly constructed and in-progress buildings became monotonous after a while.
The next major stops on the Beijing segment of our tour were the Forbidden City of the Emperor, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace.
Note to all potential tourists: Proper footwear is mandatory if you intend to cover all of these pagodas and religious shrines. China is of an unimaginable scale, and that goes for the tourist traps, too.
Speaking of scaling, most people who lived through the Cold War never thought they would ever get the opportunity to walk on The Great Wall, which is just a short bus ride from Beijing.
This was not my first thought, however, when I trod across it. Instead of thinking poetically, my initial reaction ran more toward: "Wow! That is one humongous wall!"
Our guide explained that the Great Wall took several dynasties to complete and was finished in the early 17th century. It spans thousands of miles and was built as a defense against Mongolian marauders.
And the guardhouses every few hundred feet? Well, those are now gift shops and information centers. Pass five guardhouses, and you can receive a printed award to prove your tenacity.
The next day we traveled by bicycle rickshaw to Hutong, or Beijing Old Town. This was the China I remembered from magazines and movies: The narrow, crowded alleys and one-story buildings were a sharp contrast to the modern condominiums springing up everywhere else in the city.
While in this neighborhood, my entire tour group (24 people) was treated to lunch at the home of Mrs. Lee, an enterprising local woman.
Mrs. Lee's fare was fresh and delicious, and I would have asked her for the recipe if only I had the slightest clue of what I was being served.
It's worth noting here that authentic Chinese food is quite different from the Americanized version served at the local Panda Express.
When it came to eating outside the hotel dining rooms, we found it best to just dine without asking questions.
The next day, after a hearty breakfast featuring both Asian and American delicacies, we were off to Xian.
Hitting the Silk Road
Xian, a relatively short flight away, was the next city on our two-week expedition.
The walled city of Xian is an ancient center of commerce and was heralded as the launching point of the celebrated Silk Road. It is also brighter, sunnier and, with 8 million residents, much less crowded than Beijing, which holds over 13 million.
Xian's most recent claim to fame was the discovery of the terra cotta warriors.
In 1974, a local farmer named Yang unearthed China's greatest archeological find while drilling a well.
Instead of water or oil, Yang uncovered 6,000 life-sized terra cotta warriors that were buried alongside the Tang Emperor Qin Shi Huang over 1,000 years ago.
Why? So the emperor would have protection in the next life, of course. Also unearthed were terra cotta horses and chariots, to aid the emperor's military forces.
And as for Farmer Yang? Well, he is now employed in the requisite gift shop, autographing tourist's souvenir books. But don't push your luck -- he won't sit for a photograph.
We next flew to the port city of Shanghai, China's largest metropolis, as well as its center of commerce.
For over 100 years, Shanghai was dominated by foreigners, which is why its Bund section along the Huangpu River retains an unexpected European flavor.
During our brief stay, our little caravan visited the Ming Dynasty's Yu Garden for a boat ride on the lake. Our vessel was dragon-shaped and painted with bright, vibrant colors to placate mythical Chinese gods -- as well as highly suggestible American tourists, of course.
Our boat ride was followed by an evening performance of stunning Chinese acrobats executing breathtaking feats of danger. The highlight came when five roaring motorcycles chased each other around a huge metal cage. If the Chinese decide to host the X-Games after the Olympics in 2008, then these guys would definitely win a gold medal.
Following Shanghai, we moved on to the city of Guilin, where we stayed alongside the scenic Li River; then we traveled to Hong Kong, our last stop on the trip.
Prior to going to the airport, however, I made a special stop at one of Hong Kong's famous tailors to purchase a dark blue sport jacket. And as I stood in front of the mirror assessing the tailor's fine craftsmanship, I recounted my adventure of a lifetime in China and smiled.
I'm a modern-day Marco Polo, I thought. And yes, this sports jacket is worth the 15-hour flight back to New York.
Stanley Greenberg is a freelance writer living in Long Island, N.Y. Aside from his longrunning "Over 60 ... And Getting Younger" column in the Syosset-Jericho Tribune, his work has appeared in Back In The Bronx magazine, as well as multiple weekly newspapers and publications on Long Island.