Shanghai is closer than you may imagine; only 10 hours from Heathrow and the entry point to another world! Easy immigration procedures and in no time we were met by our Wendy Wu local tour guide, Troy, and whisked away to the An Ting Villa Hotel.
The journey in by coach gave a foretaste of what was to come, with vast highways and skyscrapers and a generally very 21st century look.
It was a free afternoon and we met up with more of our group with who turned out to be a mix of Aussies and English. We were assembled for dinner in a local Shopping mall restaurant having had, at about three hours, the longest free time we would get for the rest of the tour.
The whole group assembled next morning 14 Aussies, 8 English and 2 Irish with job specs covering Cheltenham Ladies, trailer relocation across Oz, to NHS administrator amongst many others.
Breakfasts throughout the tour varied greatly but attempted to appeal to both oriental and western tastes. Personally I gave up on the western menus on day one as I found that the Chinese offerings were by far the most appetizing. I achieved my aim of not using a knife and fork for the whole of the tour.
Day Two took us first to the Old Town and the Yuan Bazaar and the Yu Gardens.
The place bustles with life and the buildings are from another era but, as we found throughout our tour, the dress is definitely western.
The only place one sees traditional local costume is in the Museum of Arts.
This was part of our afternoon itinerary and was to say the least most impressive. From there we went to the station to try a round trip on the MagLev; the Magnetic Levitation train that links the city to the International airport at a maximum speed of 430kph. They have to slow down to 340 when the trains pass in opposite directions. The 30km journey takes 7 minutes! For the techies click here.
Back onto the bus and off to the Jin Mao Tower, not by any means the tallest building in Shanghai but the only one that has an 88th floor observation room. The lift up is awesome and coming down more so.
To show the speed the guide put a small coin just off the floor and it hovered there!
One would have thought this would have been enough for one day but no, off we went to the river for an evening excursion along the Huangpu River. The transition from dusk to dark is quite spectacular and the illuminations on the riverside blocks makes a wonderful nightscape.
From the river to dinner and then bed and another early morning.
Day three started with a visit to a local silk museum, a euphemism for somewhere that spins silk and is clever enough to to sell you a pure silk filled duvet. Having used it since we came home it was well worth the £60 as it is light and warm and is non washable – they are just shaken and hung out to air. A pure silk double duvet cover, however, would set you back £250 and upward. My westies would not appreciate it!
From here we made our way to the airport for the flight to Yichang and the Yangtze river. Shanghai Photo link
The flight was eventful only in as much as we had to land at a military airport in the middle of nowhere due to fog at Yichang. Rick, our tour comedian, managed to produce beer from the galley whilst we sat and waited for clearance so all was not lost!
After about an hour we were in the air again.
We finally arrived and, after another 45 minute bus journey, were whisked into the Yan Sha, one of the top restaurants in the city. Definately good food and a local choral group to boot.
We finally embarked on our cruise ship, the Century Sky, late that evening.
This turned out to be really smart with comfortable, if fairly compact cabins, and pleasant restaurant and public rooms. There was quite a variety of tour groups collected at various stages of their itinerary, Chinese, Australian, American, et al.
The next morning we were off to see the Three Gorges Dam Project which is the worlds largest hydroelectric power station. It is impressive but has been immersed in controversy, displacing 1.2 million people and submerging 13 cities, 140 towns and over 1,000 villages. The party line from all the guides is that everybody was rehoused and all are far better off in their new homes. With their reverence of ancestors one wonders how many of the “relocated” really feel now that their forbears are left below the water line. As the boat sails along one is concious of the waterline which marks the high and low marks as the water is controlled through the dam.
On board entertainment today included a cooking demonstration on Chongqing Hot-Pot which included a host of chillies, which were evident when we got to taste the result. Josephine was having problems with her knees and, following a demonstration of Chinese Medicine, signed up with Dr Death (Really Dr Ryan, but his manner of speech got him the nickname) for a course of Acupuncture. This proved to be the next best thing to a miracle cure and she had no problems for the rest of the tour.
There was a Cabaret that evening featuring the members of the crew and very good it was to.
Day two and on the move again with a trip, involving two changes of boat, to the “Lesser Three Gorges” on the Daning river. These are named the Dragon-Gate, Misty and Dicui (Emerald) gorges. The views, when the mists associated with the area lift, are quite spectacular. It is one place where some of the ancient culture is evident, with ancient coffins somehow installed into caves in the sheer cliff face and plank walkways suspended over the river.
The small boat in which we made the tour of the upper reaches of the gorges added to the ambiance and of course everybody had to take a turn in dressing up as an ancient Chinese boatman!
We returned to start rehearsals for the “Guests Cabaret” in the evening. Rick, our group “entertainer”, devised a routine in which everybody, including our tour guide Bruce, would wear pigtails made from toilet paper by the ladies, and perform the “do re me” song from A Sound of Music.
Fortunately there is no footage of the on stage performance. The group came second to a group of children who were very good and were always tipped to win!!
The Karaoke which followed was memorable for the number of people who should have known better than to attempt to sing!!
And so to the last day of the cruise and a visit to the Shibaozhai Pagoda. The original temple was built on the side of the cliff, about 200 metres (700 feet) tall and it was reached by a series of chains and pulleys, however, in the 1700’s a nine platform pavilion was built to assist people to reach it and a further three tiers were added later. The base is now surrounded by a coffer dam to protect it from the river which since the completion of the three Gorges Project would have engulfed the base. The village through which one approaches the pagoda is a product of the relocation of a community above the original water line.
Of course a trip to China would not be complete without kite flying and the afternoon was spent on the sun deck with a multitude of kites, provided by the organizers. A great way to relax.
Whilst we were busy with the kites we passed a concrete jungle which turned out to be Zhongxian. It is really difficult to find places on maps of China. If you Google Zhongxian you get a general view of the county and there does not seem to be an actual city named as Zhohgxian!! The population density must be scary and it is difficult to get perspective on what it is like to live there. It was also interesting to see the number of people doing their laundry on the rivers edge. Reminiscent of India and Vietnam without the high rise!
The Captains Farewell Dinner was on my birthday so, following a menu which included jellyfish, steamed catfish with soy sauce and mustard goose in a clay pot to name but a few of the courses, I was shepherded out with two other birthday spirits to receive our cakes and the accolades of the gathering.
The final stop and disembarkation point was Chongqing, recently in the news for it’s association with the murder of a Brit businessman and the downfall of a Chinese politician and his wife, later to be found guilty of the murder. Not a lot going for it as far as we could see although it is the industrial centre of SW China and Sichuan Province. Regimented blocks of concrete towers and the Opera House resembled the outline of a T54 Tank!
Another couple of hours flying and bus journey and we arrived in Chengdu. This was the only stop where the standard of the hotel left quite a bit to be desired. Not that the food was too bad but the general impression was that it was dated and tired. The rationale for using it is that it offered the experience of city centre China rather than in the multinationals which have no “local feel” whatsoever.
Chengdu Centre, like Saigon, has wide boulevards and shopping precincts boasting Macdonalds, Häagen-Dazs and all the usual outlets. Prices are paltry for locally produced fare and exorbitant for anything genuinely imported. Dress sense is also ultra us/eu as far as the younger generation at least is concerned.
We spent the first afternoon wandering around the city and getting lost. Everywhere looks the same and even the card with the hotel name and address on it elicited absolutely blank looks or completely meaningless directions. We even elicited the help of a group of teenage girls who rang round on their mobiles and finally pointed us in the right direction and even then we were hand led round by the security guard at the Crowne Plaza Hotel who took pity on our lost look. We must have walked past the end of the road a number of times without recognizing it.
Of Course the main reason for being in Chengdu was to visit the Panda Sanctuary and the next morning we were duly bussed out of the city. Apparently it is not particularly popular with the local population but there were school parties and visiting groups from other Chinese provinces.
It is exceptionally well run and the enclosures are spacious and adapted completely for the needs of these quaint creatures. Pandas are bears that were carnivores and, for some reason, evolved into vegetarians and again it a species that is reliant on one particular strain of bamboo which they are ill equipped to digest. Realistically they are at the end of the evolutionary cycle and are past their sell by date. This is not a view that would be particularly popular if broadcast in the earshot of the officials at the breeding centre. One must admit that they are, what’s the word, “cute”. For a mere £130 one can be photographed holding a baby panda. What they do not tell you before relieving you of your money is that you have to wear a rubber overall, rubber gauntlets and a protective hat. This is to make sure the baby pandas do not catch anything. We gave it a miss!
After lunch in the reserve restaurant, where I bought fried rice (approx £1.00), rather than eat the rather dubious sandwiches provided, we set off for a visit to a brocade factory. Very impressive, but as usual the really worth while products were at the top end of the price bracket and were not really suited to a western suburban environment.
From here we were en route to the airport, once again, for the next leg to Xi’an and the home of the Terracotta Army.
We landed in a cold, wet and windy city, which was a bit of a shock having had, on the whole, pretty clement conditions up till this point.
This evening, following a dinner of many varied dumpling which are a local specialty, we were entertained at a festival of music and dance from the Tang Dynasty, 618-709 AD, when Xi’an was the capital of China.
Xi’an, translated as Western Peace, was the starting point of the fabulous trade routes, The Silk Road, which were followed by caravans from the 2nd century BC and carried silks, spices etc. out of China and brought back most famously, or otherwise, Buddhism and the Black Death.
The Terracotta Army, was discovered by farmers digging a well back in 1974 and is part of a necropolis dating back to around 246 BC. This is now the main attraction of Xi’an and has spawned an industry in firing copies of the artifacts.
Our tour started in a pottery producing replicas which are manufactured using the same techniques as the originals. These were handmade and, as each of the artisans had their own particular molds and models, no two of the thousands of full size figures cast were exactly the same. The whole enterprise is a masterclass in pottery but, unless one is a fanatic about the history, a replica warrior, horse, or even the Imperial coach and horses, would look pretty out of place at home.
Having seen the spin off it was time to go to visit the real thing. Now housed in specialist halls with controlled lighting and access points it is, to say the very least, impressive and certainly not to be missed. In a way it rivals the Egypt’s Valley of the Kings for this is not the resting place of many rulers but a whole army and city for just one emperor. Due to restrictions on flash photography the standard of photos from here .is pretty poor. It is a shame that the colours have been lost due to time. It was found that they faded and flaked off within 4 minutes of exposure to air and for this reason, amongst others, further sections of the site have yet to be excavated.
And so another landmark on our tour was completed and we were duly deposited in the Xi’an Art Ceramics and Lacquer Exhibition, a rather swish gift shop, and invited to a tea tasting. All very formalized and the tea was, for the most part quite familiar. This fazed the demonstrator who did not seem to expect anyone to know the difference between pu erh and oolong teas.
She made me a very acceptable jasmine tea but the price of a packet was about double that on my specialist tea website.
From here to a rather chilly exploration of the 500 year old city walls, or rather a small section of them. People actually jog round them though there was little evidence of this whilst we were there. They are pretty impressive and would be even more so in the sunshine!! There is also the inevitable gift shop housed on the upper level.
And so to the final city on our tour, Beijing, latterly known as Peking and world famous for it’s Roast Duck dish. The weather was a real improvement on Xi’an with lots of blue sky. This was considered to be due to the pollution having been cleared by snow storms a couple of days before our arrival.
Our first outing was to Tienanmen Square, infamous for the June 4 massacre of protesters in 1989. We arrived on some particular date associated with Mao Zedong and there were huge queues of Chinese outside his Mausoleum. It is a huge expanse and bustling with activity. The police being very much in evidence though low key.
Next stop the Forbidden City, covering an are of 1/3 square mile this was built as the Imperial Palace by Zhu di over 15 years starting in 1402.
It is daunting complex of just under a thousand existing buildings and would really need more than the few hours we were allotted to do it true justice. Many of the rooms are closed and one has to peer through rather dingy windows to get a glimpse of the interiors.
Follow this and a short break for lunch we were off to the the Temple of Heaven. A Ming (circa 1400) architectural masterpiece in the centre of a large park with four large gates set at each point of the compass. The park is full of tai chi classes, joggers and card players, of which there were many schools. The ladies were prominent in this pastime.
From here we went back to the hotel to prepare for the acrobatic show, the Legend of Kung Fu, in the evening. This show, at the Red Theatre, is a real action extravaganza, with a story as well. A spectacle well worth seeing.
And so ended our penultimate sight seeing day.
Another early start and we were on to the coach for thetwo hour drive to the Great Wall. This passed the site of Disneyland China which was about a quarter built when the developer felll foul of the local farmers and the whole project has been on hold for the past four years or so. Just the towers in view!
The Great Wall is quite impressive, very impressive even and a trip to China would be much poorer for missing it It is thronged by tourists of whom the majority are Chinese; I hesitate to say local as they could well have come from any corner of this vast country.
Climbing it is not the easiest exercise as every step is a different height and depth and the gradient would be classed as Diff in mountaineering! I did succeeded in getting to the top of the first watchtower which was my goal. Some of the party made it to the third level.
From here we moved on to a jade factory to see how it is carved and sculpted. Of course there is a large shop adjacent. We let the girls do the looking whilst we sat at the bar where they served local beer at an amazingly cheap rate.
And so on to the the last of our cultural sites, the fabulous Summer Palace, built in 1750 as a retreat for the Imperial families it was originally named ‘Qingyi Garden’ (Garden of Clear Ripples). It was destroyed twice, once by the Anglo/French invasion and secondly buy the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Rebuilt in classic style, with funds embezzled from the from the Chines Naval Fund, it is a beautiful setting.
Once again there were crowds of tourists but this did not detract from the overall experience. The only downside was that one of the party got conned by the “money exchange trick” where you end up with worthless Taiwanese money instead of real Yuan. Something to remember – always travel with small denomination notes and check your change before the seller disappears of the face of the earth! Josephine bought an excellent “genuine fake” Gucci bag for a fiver!!
Our farewell dinner was, of course, Peking duck, and it was a fitting finale to what was a fantastic fortnight.
China Portraits Photo Link – Pictures of people who seemed memorable just for being there.
This tour is not for the faint hearted but it certainly gives one an overview of the country and some of it’s most memorable attractions. The guides were all superb and knowledgeable and the Tour Guide, Bruce, who stayed with us for the whole journey could not be faulted on any count.
Our group was eclectic to say the least and everybody joined in and contributed to the overall enjoyment. Thank you all.
Will we go back to China? Probably not; but this is not a reflection on the tour, just that we have a lot of other Asian countries and cultures to explore whilst we still able.