Bhutan is one of the world's most isolated destinations, largely closed off and unaffected by the outside world. Exploring such as unique place calls for exceptional experiences one may only have in Bhutan, including the legendary masked-dance festivals, time at a monastery in this deeply religious country, or spotting rare black-necked cranes. All of our private tours feature activities and experiences you are interested in along with recommendations from us you may be unaware of.
An emperor's army is buried beneath the ground on the outskirts of Xi'an. It's still being excavated, row after row of life-sized models coming out from the dirt. They stare back at you, each face unique, every model marked by detail. After the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors are China's most unmissable sight. After exploring the army and the details of the Chariot Museum, our guides take you behind closed doors at the nearby Shaanxi Provincial Museum. This exclusive access provides a rich insight into a little known but highly informative side to the army and its time: the Tang Dynasty murals. Stretching across the walls, expertly lifted from sites across the region, they help you follow the folklore storyline behind the emperor's wish to be buried with his army.
In a city where the common greeting is “sik tzo fan may” (have you eaten?), it's obvious that food is more than mere sustenance. Eating out is a communal affair and dim sum is the quintessential dish. Servers stroll with trolleys stacked high with bamboo canisters. Just point and try; spare ribs in black pepper sauce, steamed shrimp dumping, mango pudding and hot egg tarts. While dim sum is a food of the streets it has evolved into a defining marker of culinary quality. Chefs compete to create the defining mouthful, restaurants innovate and experiment, dim sum has been transformed into an icon of fine dining. This isn't a surprise to those in the know, because this staple has always been a work of art.
But with so much dim sum to try, where do you start? Our local guides include some of Hong Kong's master chefs, intriguing figures that navigate your journey through the world's best dim sum.
Remarkable encounters define Sichuan Province. This is the natural home of the giant panda, gentle characters that wrap their arms around children for a hug and a photo. It's also a home to people who change face, a mystical tradition that's as baffling as it sounds. Other perplexing customs are on show at the Sichuan Opera, iconic home of the weird and wonderful. So much of China is unique but few provinces present such local inimitably, your entire stay in Sichuan dictated by experiences you can't find anywhere else in the world.
A Yangtze River cruise is a window onto the heart of China, a seductive journey through village life and industrial towns, natural wonder and artificial creations. The Three Gorges Dam is a remarkable insight into mankind's ability to tame nature. It contrasts long sections of the river where nature continues undeterred, with villages clinging to steep eroded banks. Settling into the cruise you find that the luxury vessel offers an uninterrupted view onto China's contradictions, with so much to see every time the boat turns a bend.
This is an adventure, meandering through the country, exploring with your eyes. Yet a Yangtze Cruise is also one of most relaxing things you can ever do in China. Just sit back for three days, re-energizing after time spent in cities and popular attractions. At the time you'll note the sheer physical beauty of the surroundings. A few days later you'll remark how revitalizing it all was.
History sprawls across the lanes of China's markets, trinkets spilling onto the floor and terracotta sculptures returning your gaze. Some items are shrouded in dust, like battered copies of the red book of Quotations from Chairman Mao. Others shine, polished and buffed in an attempt to get a sale. In traditional towns like Pingyao it feels like every other shop specializes in antiques; explore with a guide and you'll see the distinctive centuries, how each stall relates to a different period. This treasure hunt for antiques and souvenirs is a real charm of China, such a contrast to the high-street shopping experience at home. It doesn't matter if you're not buying – it's easy to think of these markets and stores as living museums.
Scents float across the room, fragrances meeting in the space around your seat. A choreographic ritual of preparing is under way. Serenity dominates the atmosphere as porcelain cups are expertly filled. The traditional Chinese tea ceremony isn't just about the taste, but the exoticism of the old world and the connection with a culture unchanged. Tea ceremonies aren't hard to find in China, particularly the now highly commercialized Gongfu ceremonies in overpriced tea shops. We seek out the true traditions, leading you to tea shops that have hardly changed for centuries. This isn't just a ceremony but a work of art, impossible to imitate. From the hutongs of Shanghai to 13th-century village stores, you learn the secrets of one of the world's oldest ceremonies.
Beyong Buddhism, at its heart, Bhutan is a arts and crafts and culture. The thirteen traditional art & crafts of Bhutan impart a major role in the cultural heritage of the country. The Zorig Chusum of Bhutan have been in practice since time immemorial. The categorization of these arts & crafts were made during the rule of the fourth temporal ruler of Bhutan, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay.
The Bhutanese life and culture is highly influenced by the textile industry, hence the art of weaving is a major occupation. Ladies of Eastern Bhutan are praised for their expertise in weaving some of the highly priced textiles. Previously, textiles were used to pay government taxes in lieu of cash. Locals from west of Bhutan travel to Samdrup Jongkhar to barter pricey woven textiles. Moreover, these textiles are woven using raw cotton, silk and intricate motifs.
Some of the popular textiles and their village are:
People of Korphu and Nabji in Trongsa also specialize in making nettle fiber textiles. The Brokpas of Merak and Sakteng also take weaving as a career. The spinning of sheep wool and yak hair into thread is contributed by men of Bhutan. Bhutanese weavers use 4 types of looms, namely blackstrap loom, card loom, horizontal-framed loom and horizontal fixed loom.
The forest area of Bhutan is predominantly covered by various species of bamboos and canes. Using the available resource, the locals have gained expertise in weaving bamboo and cane products. This art is known as Tshar Zo, and is popular in every nook and corner of the country. Winnowers, baskets, containers called bangchungs and palangs, mats and many more are widely demanded in the markets. The Bjokaps of Central Bhutan and locals of Kangpara in Eastern Bhutan are best known for this art and craft. These articles attract tourists and thus, resulting in an additional income and helping in keeping the demand of the craft high in the markets.
Shag-Zo is the art of wood turning and is conventionally practiced in Eastern Bhutan by the locals of Trashiyangtse. The skilled craftsmen are popularly known as Shag Zopa. They specialize in making the wooden bowls and cups, which traditionally are termed as phobs and dapas. Special wood knots, Zaa, are used in the making these bowls. Prior to the introduction of metals like brass and steel, these bowls were extensively used by the Bhutanese. Presently, these are sold are typical artifacts. Visitors buy these items as souvenirs. The locals of Khengkhar, a small village in eastern Bhutan, are best known for their specialization in making Jandup, the traditional wooden wine containers.
Lha-Zo are the Bhutanese Paintings, which contribute to the traditional arts and crafts of the country. This is one of the ancient art forms that involve paintings of the imagery landscapes of Bhutan. Lha Rips is the term used for the master painters. Their creativeness could be seen in every architectural piece ranging from the glorious temples to the massive Dzongs and spiritual monasteries. One can also find a few masterpieces in modest Bhutanese homes. The distinctive paintings and use of various colors represent the art & craft of Bhutan. A few of the examples, where one can find original paintings are thongdrols or thangkas. To add color to the painting, natural pigmented soils are used. These different colored soils, found throughout the country, are named accordingly, for example, the black lumps of soil is called ‘sa na’, red lumps as ‘Tsag sa’, and so on.
In the construction industry of Bhutan, the Shing Zo (wood work) plays a vital role. The master carpenters are known as Zo-Chen and Zowo. The masterpieces could be seen throughout the country in palaces, temples, bridges, and houses. The dzongs are also praised for their uniqueness and fine specimens of the woodwork. The master carpenters (the chief architects) undertake the work right from the designing to measuring, carving and completing the work. Timber is the raw material used in the making of structures for doors, windows, stairs, columns, balconies, beams, elaborate decorative cornices and different structural elements. Therefore, the architectural brilliance of Bhutan is praised for its elegance, beauty, and unique character. On the other hand, these structures are highly vulnerable to degeneration and fire. In the list of great craftsmen, Trulpai Zowo Balep is revered for his architectural skill in the construction of Punakha Dzong (1637).
The ancient craft of masonry is known as Do Zo. It is also regarded as a trade, which is practiced till date. The temples, Chortens (stupas), Dzongs and farm houses, throughout the country are built using stone. Chendebji Chorten in Central Bhutan and Chorten Kora in Tashiyangtse in Eastern Bhutan, are a few of the finest specimen of Do Zo. The locals of Rinchengang Village in Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag are best known for their expertise in making the best of the stone works in Bhutan.
Par Zo in another traditional art of Bhutan, honed over periods of time. The carvings are done on wood, slate and stone. The unique designs and ark work represents the distinctive character of the Land of the Thunder Dragon. One can witness the skillful carvings in various celebrations such as Tsechus (annual religious festival). Traditional engraved motifs are found on Dzongs and the traditional Bhutanese houses. Phalluses are a unique wood carving that attracts visitors. These wood carvings are hung on the corners of the houses in varied shapes and sizes. During religious festivals, the Acharyas (the clowns) wield these carved wooden phalluses, signifying to bless spectators and discard their misfortunes and evils.
Do Nag Lopens is the term used for the master craftsmen of the art of slate carving. Both the eastern and western regions of Bhutan are rich in the content of Slate. These carvings are not very diverse and are found in various religious places like Chortens (Stupas), temples and Dzongs. One can also find Slate Carvings in different mantras, religious scriptures and deific engravings. The stone carvings are not very evident in the region. Thus, one can find these carvings in huge grinding mills that are used by people residing in distant Bhutan villages.
Clay Work or Jim Zo is a traditional craft that has been passed down from one generation to the other. The origin of this art precedes the beginning of other sculpture works like bronze and similar metal works. The clay work in Bhutan is used to make the statutes of Gods, Goddesses, Deities and other significant religious figures. Jim Zo Lopens is the term used to define the master sculptors. Along with the art of sculpting clay statues, the ancient art of crafting clay pottery is also very much in practice. These potteries can be used as decorative items, souvenirs or gift articles.
On one hand, where the art of modeling statues is done by men, the pottery is specialty of women. The array of clayware includes stoneware, earthenware, and the china-clayware. But, in Bhutan, only earthenware is available. The success in crafting clay pottery is completely dependent on the composition of the clay, the skill of the crafter in clay shaping and right temperature to bake the material. Thereafter, Lac is used to coat the baked clay items and provide them endurance against water. The women of Paro and Lhuentse vigorously practice this art to keep it alive.
Lug Zo is an art that involves casting made out of bronze. In Bhutan, bronze was commonly used to make containers such as urns, cups and vases. People also used bronze to caste weapons and armors such as helmets, swords, battle-axes, shields and knives. In the 17th century, the bronze casting was introduced in Bhutan, and widespread through Newari artisans, who came visiting from Nepal. Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal was the one who invited the Newars to cast bronze religious items like water offering bowls and bells, and bronze statues. They introduced this distinctive art and today there are a few Bhutanese who practice bronze castings.
Gar Zo is the iron art work and in the late 14th century blacksmithing began in Bhutan. Legends say that this art of iron casting was introduced by Dupthob Thangtong Gyalpo, a Tibetan Saint. He is honored by the people of Bhutan as a master engineer for his expertise in casting chains of Iron and setting them as bridges over a deep ravine. About 8 suspension bridges in the country are said to be built by him. The bridge crossing over the Paro Chu, en route from Paro to Thimphu, is one of the living specimens of such bridges. This further connects the highway to the popular Tachog Lhakhang. Visitors can also find the remains of other similar bridges in Paro at the National Museum. Gar Zo is one popular art that is on its way to extinction. But, the original Tibetan settlers in Trashigang practice iron casting till date.
De Zo is another major art that plays an important role in the list of art & craft of Bhutan. Dezop is the term used to define people engaged in making the traditional Bhutanese paper. The bark of the Daphne tree is used as the raw material in the making of the traditional paper. Most of the ancient religious texts and scriptures were on Dezho and traditional Bhutanese ink was used for writing. Additionally, gold was also used occasionally to write. Though, the modern paper has dominated the markets of Bhutan, people are still engaged in the production of traditional paper. They also use Desho as carry bags, envelopes, and wrapping for gifts. This art is majorly practiced by locals of Trashiyangtse in Bhutan, where raw material is available.
The popular art of tailoring in Bhutan is termed as Tshem Zo. The art is broadly categorized as Lhem Drup (the art of appliqué), Tsho Lham (the art of traditional Bhutanese boot making) and Tshem Drup (the art of embroidery). Monks in Bhutan normally practice the art of appliqué and embroidery. They produce large religious scrolls (Thangkas), using this art form. Thangkas portray deities, saints, Gods and Goddesses. On the other hand, the Traditional boot making is done by Bhutanese laymen. Officials wear these boots on some special gatherings and functions. These boots are made of cloth and leather. The origin of this old craft of boot making is still unknown. In villages, even special craftsmen use uncured leather to make these traditional boots. The government support has helped in keeping this art alive and as a result, there has been a recent revival in the urban centers of kingdoms in Bhutan. These craftsmen are also specialized in sewing the traditional Bhutanese garments, Kira and Gho
China's backstreet medicine industry has a bad reputation, not least for suggesting rhino horn is an aphrodisiac. But beneath the odd, mad claim, a world of herbs and medicines continues to influence most of the country's population. In Hong Kong, an expert guide leads you around a backstreet market, smelling all the herds as the echo of traders' shouts floats above your head. In Beijing and Shanghai you follow the alleyways of tradition, discovering tiny medicine stores that have been in the same family for over 200 years. While you might not be interested in trying the potions and spices, exploring this world is a fabulous insight into an unchanged side of China.
Dim sum in Hong Kong and dumplings in Shanghai, two historic dishes written into Asian culinary folklore. Guided by Los Angeles impresario Neal Fraser, our unique Iron Chef itinerary explores the tastes that fuel these two cities. Master cooking classes are led by by television chefs, markets are crawled for the freshest ingredients, tables are booked at legendary restaurants. While our Iron Chef Indochina tours leave on fixed dates, the Iron Chef experience can also be incorporated into your luxury China tour. It's not just Hong Kong and Shanghai, but the imperial cuisine of Beijing and the fiery hot pots of Sichuan, to name just two.