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GLOBE TREKKER CHINA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Megan McCormick, Justine Shapiro
Directors: Catey Sexton, Andrew Margetson
Audio: English 
Subtitles: None
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: 555 (Pilot) Productions
Features: "Around the World" tour, facts about China 
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2002

"It's a miracle I got here - nobody speaks English - there isn't even a sign that says hotel."

Episodes ****

China is the third-largest nation in the world and possesses a population in the billions. It is an old country deep in history and tradition, and its people, including fifty-five minority nationalities, comprise some of the most diverse ethnic groups in all the world. Yet, many westerners only have a vague appreciation of the vast richness of Chinese culture and heritage. Part of the problem has been China's traditional closed-door policy which has only been relaxed in recent history. With the doors opened to increased tourism and international trade, travel through China may still be tricky but is easier and more feasible than ever before. For adventurous vacationers, China now presents an exciting alternative to Europe and the road well-traveled.

Over the past decade, one travelogue program that has aided countless would-be explorers in planning their international excursions has been the long-running TV show Globe Trekker. A popular staple of cable and public television, the show's strength has always been its intimate and personal revelations into the true flavor of the world's numerous countries beyond the usual tourist traps. Globe Trekker: China, for instance, provides a wonderful opportunity to view some of China's more majestic tourist attractions as well as its smaller, seldom-visited wonders off the beaten path.

Globe Trekker: China presents two episodes from Globe Trekker focusing on Central China and the southwest provinces of China. In the first episode, effervescent hostess Megan McCormick brings us on a journey through the heartland of Central China and the Yangzi River regions. In the second episode, Justine Shapiro traverses the rarely-explored traditional southwest provinces of China - Guangzi, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Sichuan.

In her Globe Trekker segment, Megan begins her trip in Shanghai. Then, she treks through Central China and the Yellow Mountains via the Yangzi River before concluding her journeys in Xi'an, the ancient capital of China.

Shanghai is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Megan spends a significant amount of time exploring the city and its various shopping marts, famous bazaars, and lodging facilities. One of her excursions includes a visit to the famous Shanghai acrobatic schools which routinely produce some of the world's finest acrobats.

Travel through Shanghai is best accomplished via taxis. Outside the city, however, travel in China can be notoriously trying at times. Trains are the most popular means of transportation for the general populace, although reservations can be difficult to obtain owing to the national enthusiasm for travel. Keep in mind that trips can be long and extremely crowded, so flexibility and perseverance rather than pre-planning might best preserve the sanity of the determined traveler. In any event, any trip by train in China should be considered an experience all in itself! Non-native speakers are well-advised to carry a phrase book with them at all times.

A visit to Suzhou and its famous silkworms is next on Megan's itinerary. While Suzhou has been China's silk capital for hundreds of years, it also boasts other alluring attractions, such as the tranquility of its Chinese classical gardens and its famous canal waterways. Megan arrives in time to witness the annual Temple Fair, a lush traditional costume celebration performed at the end of each silk harvest.

Certainly, no trip to China would be complete without an indulgence in its traditional herbal medicine. Megan tries out the local Shanghai therapy for the usual travel aches and sores. The more adventurous travelers may even elect to follow suit with Megan's next daring move - drinking down some medicinal snake juice wine, which promotes strength, a youthful appearance, and good health.

Leaving Shanghai, Megan next visits Huangshan and the splendid Yellow Mountains. Although the arduous trek to the mountain summit takes 20,000 steps, the view from the top is truly spectacular and well-worth the effort. It is, after all, a sight that has inspired countless Chinese poets and artists to creative heights for eons.

From Wuhan, Megan embarks upon a boat trip up the Yangzi River. At times tranquil, at times merciless and unrelenting, the Yangzi is the most important river in China, a four thousand mile stretch of flowing waters that winds through the very heart of China. Megan's most important stop along the way is at the monumental Three Gorges Dam construction site, one of the largest and certainly most controversial engineering jobs in the world. China hopes that the dam, scheduled for completion around 2012, will finally tame the wild Yangzi River and will prevent the thousands of drowning deaths caused each year by flooding. But the completed dam will also submerge thousands of villages and over a dozen cities, not to mention countless invaluable archeological sites, robbing future generations of Chinese people of significant portions of their heritage. Megan detours up Shennong Stream, one of the Yangzi River's seven hundred tributaries, to visit one such rural village that will vanish in the near future. She also visits Fengdu, one of the cities to be eventually submerged. Also known as the "City of the Ghosts," Fengdu's legendary status will someday become fact with the completion of the Three Gorges Dam.

Leaving the Yangzi, Megan enters Chongqing, the largest city in Central China in the heart of Sichuan province. It is also the third largest city in China and is famous for its operas and particularly for its spicy "Szechwan" cuisine, in which Megan duly indulges.

Megan's journey ends in Xi'an, for eight hundred years the former capital of China. This ancient city was once the largest in all the world, its power rivaling even that of Rome and Constantinople. In the past, Xi'an prospered from the silk trade and today is home to the famous terracotta army of stone warriors which guard the tomb of the first Qin Emperor, Shi Huang.

Globe Trekker: China continues now with a visit to the southwestern provinces. This second segment is hosted by Justine Shapiro, a popular and photogenic Globe Trekker guide who generally offers a more level-headed, informative commentary than the other hosts but is not above occasional tomfoolery for the camera, either. Justine's journey begins in the autonomous region of Guangxi and then travels forth into the heartland of the southwest regions of China.

Justine visits the fabled jagged green hills of Yangzhou in Guangxi before heading out to Guiyang, capital of Guizhou. This province has only been opened to tourists since 1984 and so is relatively unexplored by western visitors. Along the way, Justine intrepidly samples some of the more exotic local cuisine, including frogs, snakes (again), and yes, even dogs, too.

Guiyang is a major crossroads for the train network in southwest China. From here, Justine heads towards Liuzhi. It is amusing to see Justine flounder helplessly at times as she clings desperately to her translation phrase book and mangles Mandarin Chinese en route to her various destinations. Such confusion and chaos will be the norm for any foreign travelers in China, but as wisdom dictates, often the voyage itself and the experiences garnered along the way are more memorable than the final act of actually arriving at one's destination.

To complicate matters, in many remote Chinese towns, hotels and restaurants are almost non-existent. Frequently, the locals will offer lodgings in their own homes to foreign travelers, so having a friendly and outgoing personality helps. While in the Liuzhi region, Justine seeks out the mountainous village of Lung Ga to hear the ethereal singing of the Long Horn Miao women and to experience their ceremonial dances and traditional folk songs. Having a winsome personality, she secures lodgings at the family home of the village chief himself!

When traveling near Liuzhi, a visit to the nearby Huangguoshu Waterfalls is well-worth the hassle of a few extra hours of detour. These waterfalls are the largest in all of Asia, and the overwhelming spectacle of their presence, even reduced upon a television screen, is still a wonder to behold.

After absorbing the majesty of the Huangguoshu Waterfalls, Justine travels to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Her journey (via train) is comical but accurately reflects the truly unparalleled surrealism of train travel in China. In Kunming, Justine trades the train for a bus to Jinghong in the Xishuangbanna region, where she travels further along the Mekong River to visit regional Buddhist monks and witnesses the dances and ceremonies of local tribes.

Finally, Justine turns northward, flying this time to Chengdu of Sichuan province. Sichuan is the largest province in China, and the "Perfect Metropolis" Chengdu, with a population over 10 million, is the most modern, liberal, and fashionable city in southwest China. Justine takes the opportunity to visit Chengdu University and undergoes acupuncture to soothe the cumulative aches from endless days of travel.

Justine visits the various antique rows and fresh food markets and also Chengdu's famous three-hundred year old teahouse in the city's center. At night, she experiences the dazzling streetlights of Chengdu's street shops, the liveliest in all of China. By morning, she participates in the daily tai chi exercise rituals.

Last but certainly not least, if one animal has come to symbolize China, it must surely be the Giant Panda. Justine has the great fortune to play with some cute and young Panda bears at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, including a cuddly 6-week old newborn. It is, as Justine describes it, the "quintessential China experience."

The final destination on Justine's trek is Songpan, a village far north of Chengdu that has given way to a Tibetan lifestyle. The majestic mountainous scenery of this region is among the most beautiful on Justine's entire trip and provides the perfect locale in which to conclude a most eventful journey through southwestern China.

The two Globe Trekker episodes on this disc make several allusions to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's, a highly tumultuous period in recent Chinese history. During a period from 1966-70, hundreds of temples were destroyed as religion was banned and China turned its back upon western influence and culture. The scars and poignant aftermath of this legacy still remain, and it may behoove interested viewers who wish to broaden their minds to perform some extracurricular research into this fascinating and important period in Chinese history.

At the very least, Globe Trekker: China provides food for thought in additional to the visual splendor of China's wonderful landscapes and unique peoples. Although the episodes on this DVD are just under an hour in length apiece, they offer a compelling look at China not only from a tourist's viewpoint but also from the Chinese people's perspective, too. It is an accomplishment towards which all travelogues should aspire - a promotion of true international understanding bridging any differences in how diverse cultures approach life. After all, tourism is only superficial and insincere unless travelers endeavor to develop an earnest appreciation for the native cultures and peoples of the country in which they travel.

Video **1/2

Globe Trekker: China is presented in its original full-screen format, as seen on TV. The episodes shown on this DVD were photographed using various video and film formats, so clarity and graininess will vary according to the medium used. Generally, the picture quality is quite clear and detailed though occasionally blocky in some spots. The bit rate averages about 4.5 Mbps.

Audio **1/2

The audio is in stereo 2.0, as is common for TV programs. Although some voice-overs are provided, most of the audio is provided on-location, so the background ambiance further enhances the "you-are-there" feel. This is particularly nice during ceremonies, such as the Long Horn Miao ceremony, or the treacherous up-river trek through rapids along the Yangzi River.

Features *

An "Around the World" tour promotes the various Globe Trekker DVDs available at the time of this disc's release. A list of these DVDs, with brief descriptions of each one, is also included. The clips in this tour provide sneak peeks at some of the other intriguing countries visited by the Globe Trekker hosts.

For those viewers interested in learning more general information about China, the disc offers several pages of travelogue information about China covering its people, food, weather, and popular attractions or festivals. There are links to pilot guides websites for further details, too.

Summary:

Globe Trekker: China is part of the first wave of DVDs that arrived for the popular TV show Globe Trekker. The potential traveler pondering a trip abroad or the armchair explorer sitting at home will both find this disc is an enjoyable and engaging resource for planning any future excursions into one of the most fascinating and ancient nations in the world, China.

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