The Forbidden City, home to China's emperors, loomed ahead, under a cloudy sky. One after another, this vast collection of ancient buildings, all vermilion and yellow, unfolded -- a tad mysterious for a first-time visitor to Beijing, as I was in October.
After passing through a beautiful garden, my fellow travelers and I were ushered into the Lodge of Fresh Fragrance, a private apartment of the emperor Qianlong, a great arts patron. Inside, we inspected an early-18th-century famille-rose porcelain bowl; his jade-bolted, carved wooden furniture; and the bed where he sat to watch performances staged just for him. Walking out, I fell in next to Ross Terrill, who related how Qianlong, a Manchu from the north, had become ''very Chinese'' by his death in 1799.
Yes, that Ross Terrill, the Harvard-based author of seven books on China who first ventured to the mainland in 1964. Yes, that little lodge, normally off limits to the hordes of tourists that roam the Forbidden City these days. And yes, a magnificent bowl, and two other imperial pieces, brought out for an up-close view and mini-lecture by a resident expert.
It was my first day in China, and the first, but hardly the last, time my group and I were made to feel special during our 16-day trip. As travelers with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we simply got used to it. When, in fact, the police escorts that helped speed our buses through Beijing's dense traffic disappeared after two days, we felt a bit deprived. (They reappeared for a while in Shanghai.) And when, on a cruise down the Yangtze River, we mixed with other groups, it felt somewhat odd.
The Met, like many cultural institutions, has long been offering an impressive docket of tours every year. ''It's grown and grown,'' said Harriet Friedlander, the chairwoman of Academic Arrangements Abroad, which organizes trips for dozens of cultural institutions and affinity groups. (A China trip similar to mine leaves New York on Sept. 10.)
For the institutions, the tours are a way to make money, especially in these days of economic retreat and retrenchment from the late 90's. Sponsored trips allow museums to cultivate donors and strengthen ties between curators and visitors. Originally, many institutions required tour members to make a tax-deductible donation, paid by separate check, but these days such donations are usually voluntary, Ms. Friedlander said. Instead, the museums factor the costs of staff time to help develop trips and the administrative fees into the price, leaving a profit. The trips are also in line with a museum's educational mission.
For travelers -- even independent and experienced ones who normally shun organized tours (like me) -- these trips have many attractions. They would have to: although prices vary significantly, depending on the trip and the institution, they tend to be more expensive than other tours. My trip to China cost more than $8,000 (a person, double occupancy), plus airfare. I found nearly comparable trips on the Web at about $5,000.
But this is where Mr. Terrill and the other extras come in. Museums sell their entree to private art collections, private sites and private events -- a chance to be on the A-list even when you're not. And they sell the presence of experts; besides Mr. Terrill, Diane Schafer, a lecturer in Chinese art at the Met, accompanied us.
My companions, a well-heeled group of about 40 people who ranged in age from 40 to 82, included doctors, lawyers, real estate investors, a ''retired'' Wall Streeter and a hospital administrator; they had little interest in the schlocky sites and what we got of that was minimal.
In Xian, which served as the capital of 11 dynasties, we visited the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, which houses a rich collection of artifacts. Before viewing them, however, we were led down to the storage rooms, where murals and frescoes from Tang dynasty tombs are kept -- murals that our local guide, William, said he had never seen.
ASHAANXI guide began her discussion of them -- ''This is an important building'' -- but some of us were bewildered until Ms. Schafer stepped in to describe life then, about 700 A.D. She pointed out the elaborate hairdos and elegant shoes, the silk garments and troops of musicians entertaining the aristocrats. Through her, we learned that the big nose on a diplomat in one painting was meant to signify he was a foreigner, a Westerner, and that another diplomat, standing at the back wearing leather trousers and a leather hat, was depicted that way to suggest he was probably from northeastern China, a small area.
Don't get me wrong. China's guides in the cities and inside the museums, at least ours, were terrific. They spoke excellent English; they worked hard both to relate history and provide contemporary information. They answered questions, even silly ones, with respect and aplomb. They told jokes.
Sometimes, though, they seemed too well schooled by the Chinese tourist organizations. They rarely strayed from their well-honed texts. More than one refuted old ''misconceptions,'' say, that ''Chinese don't eat dogs.'' (Some do, mainly in the poor rural areas.) More than one told the same story about vanity license plates in China (demand so clamorous that the government suspended sales).
Sometimes, there was simply no substitute for having an independent voice from the West answering questions.
The visit to Tiananmen Square was such an occasion. My Blue Guide to China contains one sentence on the reason it is so well known: '' . . . it had just seen its bloodiest suppression, that of the students and citizens supporting a movement for greater press freedom and democracy on 4 June 1989.'' Our Chinese guide, Henry, walked us around the square, pointing out Mao's mausoleum and other buildings, and when asked how many died there in 1989, he replied: ''The BBC and the Voice of America say 3,000, and the Chinese government says 300. We don't believe either one, and we don't care -- that's history.''
Mr. Terrill, walking with us, made that history come alive. Hand on his chin, he told of watching the infamous confrontation between the Chinese Army and pro-democracy students from the rooftop of the Beijing Hotel nearby. ''I arrived the night of June 3,'' he said. ''Troops had been advancing on the city, and no taxi would take me into the city. I found someone to take me in, and I heard on the radio: 'Citizens of Beijing, return to your homes. Above all, do not go to Tiananmen Square.' ''
Pointing to where Mao's portrait hangs, Mr. Terrill continued: ''Students had erected a goddess of democracy there. Troops shot into the crowd. Two or three hours later, tanks came from the west into the square and dismantled the tents. There were deaths. By 4 a.m., it was quite calm. The tanks were neatly arrayed, blocking entrance to the square. There was an acrid smell; helicopters above. There were feverish crowds at the hospitals.
''No buses ran, no People's Daily was published on June 4,'' he said. ''Thereafter, the Hong Kong Press was faxed and copied and posted on trees and posts. The students had started as simply marking the anniversary of an early 1900 battle. . . . They were surprised by the public support.''
As Mr. Terrill's you-are-there description shows, the special moments on this trip were hardly confined to the visual arts. At the Quanjude Restaurant in Beijing, a place known for Peking duck and an almost obligatory tourist stop, we ate in a private room decorated in pagoda style. More important, we were serenaded by the Beijing Women's Traditional Instruments Ensemble, a group that has toured the West. The women, dressed head to toe in silk, each a different color (red, pale yellow, pink and turquoise), played traditional Chinese songs like ''Moonlight of the Spring,'' as well as American folk songs.
Unlike Europe, China has few private art collections for travelers to see; on that score, I suppose this trip disappoints. The one home we did visit, in Beijing, was owned by Western expatriates.
But China is so seductive that my trip would have been memorable even without singular moments. The facets that the Met arranged added to its allure. Consider one mark of its success: on a trip as high end as this, the traveler is king, and there was little pressure to attend every event on the agenda. But on my trip, most of us did, willingly.