We had sailed overnight from Jingzhou to Wuhan for an afternoon flight to Shanghai.
Sorry to say, maybe I’m becoming a little jaded, but for the morning, en route to the airport, we stopped at Wuhan’s cultural museum. I felt: pointless. Lots of old stuff, related to nothing I knew about, cared about or anything with a wow-factor.
Didn’t even bother with photographs!
The flight arrangements were standard Viking: touch nothing, put your bags outside the cabin in the morning and they’ll appear by magic in your room in Shanghai. We’ll do check-in for you. And it all went like clockwork.
However, it wasn’t China Eastern's finest hour. Grumpy check-in clerk who claimed to speak no English. Bus from the gate to the aircraft and from aircraft to gate at the other end. Flight delay of 90 minutes “imposed by air traffic control” sitting on board a too warm 737-800. Almost non existent in flight service.
The Westin Hotel Shanghai is ideally situated just 5 minutes from The Bund and is a superbly equipped hotel. Our standard room in most hotels would be, at least, a Junior Suite. We’re on the 18th floor with magnificent views of Shanghai’s beautifully lit skyline.
Busy day coming up tomorrow.
The Hutongs are the old style housing of Beijing. Effectively slums, these narrow alleyways were pulled down in vast numbers to make way for the modern city. However, about 10 years ago, it was decided that they had a cultural value if the city’s centre was not to become a generic international skyscraper park.
Originally courtyards, with housing to three sides, they provided space for three generations of a family. When Maoist communism nationalised property, “excess” space was confiscated and allocated to the homeless. In the 1990’s when policies changed and property could once again be privately owned, where it could be restored to the original owners, it was; if not financial compensation was paid.
We went to visit a home, conveyed on “pedicabs”; the bicycle replacement for rickshaws - a once in a lifetime experience!
The alleyways are just about as wide as 2 cars (smallish ones) - and only just. Cars use the alleyways. There’s no one-way system in place. People go about their day-to-day moving around, shopping and such. These guys can pedal up to (say) 20mph and travel nose to tail; if one brakes hard ahead of you... theme-park thrill rides - nothing to them!
We visited a family home. One room divided into 3 sections: kitchen, living area, sleeping area. Very small by any standard.
We were served tea and the lady resident told us something of her life. Her niece was a glass painter. She paints bottles on the inside! She has a certain celebrity, having been invited by the 2008 Olympic committee to demonstrate this ancient art to competitors at the Games. Her work was beautiful (and for sale). We bought a piece.
We journeyed past the shops and stands to the Bell Tower.
At the Bell Tower we were given “instruction” on how to drink tea in China and offered samples of various teas (mostly nice, some not so) by a charming and quite amusing team of young ladies.
Today was our air transfer to Xi’an day. It couldn’t have been more simple.
Before we left the hotel, our check-in bags (with bright blue Viking labels) had been collected from outside our rooms and our passports collected by our tour guide.
When we left for the Hutongs, we put our carry-on in the bus luggage hold.
When we reached the airport, we collected our carry-ons and went to the departure area, where our guide had already done check-in for the whole group. He passed out the boarding cards, a boxed lunch and we went through to the gate in plenty of time to eat lunch.
Our flight was on a new A321 with China Eastern (a Sky Team airline - our loyalty scheme; extra miles and priority check-in for us!).
A smooth, pleasant one hour forty minute flight (they served hot food - make a note, please KLM).
On arrival we went to baggage collection, but were told to leave them on the carousel as Viking had staff to offload them and take them to our hotel rooms.
On to the coach (carry-ons, same system) and off to the hotel through the most congested traffic I've ever seen (we thought Beijing was bad - no contest!).
Dinner was arranged, buffet style (which seems to be the most common way in China) but with no fixed sitting time - turn up at the restaurant when ready.
The hotel is typically Hilton. Spectacular public areas, more than adequate rooms and lousy WiFi!
A remarkable day.
A fairly early start today (8am), necessary because of traffic and tourist numbers.
The scale is enormous. The number of people extraordinary - thousands upon thousands - and we’d set off early to “avoid the crowds”; Lord only knows what it’s like later in the day and it isn’t even “high season”.
Better viewed in pictures, as it’s pretty well beyond description!
We had a super lunch at a nearby 5 star hotel, then returned to our hotel for some R&R and some independent shopping in the adjacent China World Mall.
The view from the hotel room is spectacular; across to the Bund and the business district on the other side of the river.
Shanghai is (to our minds, at least) the best of the cities we’ve visited. Far less pollution, the traffic is only ridiculous and it has preserved some of its Chinese and Colonial history. The other cities seem to have torn almost everything down in a rush to become “modern”.
We toured to the Bund, a 1 mile long riverside park. To the far side of the river the high-rise business district; on the near side the colonial style buildings created by European corporations just after the 1st Opium war.
We then travelled on to gardens that dated back a few centuries, used by Emperors when Shanghai was briefly China’s capital.
We then moved on to a shopping area (everyone in China has something to sell; I was offered a genuine Rolex for US$10). Obviously aimed at tourists, it nonetheless had a traditional Chinese flavour.
Finally we were supposed to move on to another “Cultural Museum”, but our Viking guide had picked up that these were not universally popular, so offered to drop those who wanted to “sightsee independently” back to the hotel en route. I learned that I’m not the only Philistine in the world. About 70% of our group opted out!
The downside of all Chinese cities is the population size (Shanghai: 24 million). You can't go anywhere without a crush along the streets. It’s difficult to stop and look in a shop and certainly not one on the other side of the street. Everywhere is wall-to-wall humanity; to be honest it tarnishes the shine on even a beautiful city like Shanghai - it’s too much like hard work to go out to explore.
Also, as is somewhat inevitable, with the number of flights and coach rides, we’ve both picked up a nasty cough, so we decided that room service and TV would be best to complete the day.
The steak sandwich (me) and club sandwich (her) were absolutely perfect.
An early night was absolutely necessary!
We had most of Sunday free as our flight home wasn’t until 00:15 on the Monday. A great idea, when we planned it and it probably still was for the best as we were both sick as dogs with some nasty flu-like virus.
Viking had picked up the tab for a 6pm check out so we were able to spend most of the day feeling retched in our very comfortable room taking some strange, but highly effective, Chinese herbal mixture from a nearby pharmacy.
The transfer to the airport was standard Viking, efficient and fully escorted. We were able to spend a few pleasant hours in the SkyTeam lounge before boarding for the 11 hour flight. Unusually, for KLM, whilst the flight and flight crew were excellent, the food on board was… defies polite description.
Another 4 hours in KLM’s Crown lounge in Amsterdam made up for it. Some of the best ever breakfast pastries filled the space caused by enforced dieting on the aircraft.
Flying to Cardiff makes all the difference. Less than 30 minutes between collecting the bags and opening the front door. An odd fact: because of the time zones, Monday had 32 hours in the day, and it felt like it.
China - Something totally different.
Glad we went? - Yes, yes, yes!
Would we go again? - Probably not.
The pollution is real, very real. Everywhere, except Shanghai, it tears at your throat. On some trips you could bearly see 50 yards through the coach windows. There may have been fascinating scenery; we’ll never know. Even in the Badaling Hills (Great Wall) 50km from Beijing, there was still a haze over everything. Photo-editing software is very good at cleaning up images!
The place is so populated and cities overcrowded. Most sights were so full of people, it was difficult to pause to soak up the “ambience”. It was almost impossible to enjoy going out to explore a city. Pavements were dense with people, traffic was manic and noisy, and the Chinese have no concept of orderly systems. The Western approach of “after you” is, in China, “after me”. They push, shove and haven’t the slightest concept of queuing.
Having said that, as individuals they are warm and friendly. Smile or nod at any passing Chinese person and they will smile and greet you. Sometimes you become a tourist attraction. Children want to speak to you. They’ll ask to take a selfie with you.
China, from a tourism perspective, has lost the plot. What attracts us to a location is natural beauty and a sense of social history. China's desperate to show its “Western Friendly” commercialism and so the baby’s being thrown out with the bath water. They build vast office blocks and apartment buildings and leave them empty. “Ghost cities” our guide called them. It's tearing down traditional neighbourhoods to create glossy high rise skyscrapers. Shanghai was the only exception. There, at least, some pre-20th Century architecture survives.
It’s probably different away from the Cities, but those regions are not on most itineraries. They would certainly be worth exploring.
Definitely this was an experience not to be missed, but not one that needs repeating.
What a total mess! Weather and incompetence are a recipe for chaos.
Maybe today was KLM’s attempt at a hallowe’en experience for its passengers.
The first problem was fog, and Cardiff Airport does not work well with fog. Our plane had to come in from Amsterdam, but couldn’t land. Diverted to Exeter. OK, that’s only 20 minutes away by air.
However, whatever KLM were doing made no sense, and no explanation was on offer. Flybe had a similar issue with diverted (to Exeter) aircraft but were up and running by 11:15am. We didn’t get away until 13:20.
Not a problem. We had a long connection anyway, so this would leave about 2 hours to the next flight (17:35).
Off we go to the gate. Sit down, get comfortable, have a cuppa. Then they change the gate (about 250 people move like nomads). I noticed it’s a different aircraft at the new gate (technical fault?) The display at the gate shows a delay of about 75 minutes (18:50), boarding to begin at 18:05 (no announcements… read the board!). About 10 minutes before that, the gate agent starts boarding procedures: passports and visa checked, boarding passes scanned, out to the jetway. Except the jetway’s closed.
A delay with catering apparently. Then the captain has some other “checks”. At 18:50 (we should be taking off now!) we’ve been standing about for an hour, trapped in no man’s land. No access to refreshments or toilets. Babies yelling (I see their point of view!).
So eventually we’re on board and off to China ...
But then things improved.
KLM in the air are so different to their ground staff. Great flight (even if it was 90 minutes late) impeccable service, edible food, lots of drinks free (tea, coffee, booze and liqueurs after “dinner”), hot towels and this was Economy Comfort class.
Beijing airport was bright, airy and amazingly efficient. Immigration agents were fast and friendly. Baggage was on the carousel almost as soon as we reached it, so within 45 minutes we were heading out to our coach to go to the hotel.
We managed to sit in the front and had the opportunity to closely observe Chinese driving. All I can say is, “There are no rules”. Lane changing: just do it; don’t indicate, move diagonally across 3 lanes if you like, use the hard shoulder as another lane… and all at 100 km/ph.
Then we reached the city. Same system, but add pedestrian crossings (which are ignored by drivers), bicycles & mopeds (for those with a death wish) which dodge in and out of any and all lanes and some vehicles resembling 3-wheel tuk-tuks to add a little spice. Oddly, no one seemed to get hurt!
The hotel is amazing; one of the most luxurious we’ve ever stayed in (and that’s saying something!). It even has its own upmarket shopping mall, leisure centre and children’s adventure playground!
We had dinner in the hotel tonight. Once again, the service and attention to detail was incredible. À la Carte prices fairly reasonable (even considering the £Sterling is now a 3rd world currency)… except for drinks, including water. They make UK hotel pricing seem like a fire-sale at Tesco!
The food was excellent, so, for tomorrow, we’re looking forward to the highly priced (and fabulous looking) buffet selection which Viking have included in the tour.
It’s been a long “day”!
From late last night until around 9:30pm tonight we sailed at a gentle pace along the Yangtze through deep rocky gorges, small townships and steep but cultivated hillsides.
We stopped around 10:30am and transferred to sampans (the 21st Century version with outboard motors) to travel up the narrow Goddess Gorge.
All very scenic and relaxing - just what we needed after the hectic days so far.
It appears we haven’t actually offended the Weather God. Our local sampan guide said today was a “nice day”. It has rained here every day for the past 2 months!
Another quiet, relaxing day cruising down the Yangtze river, watching the world go by, negotiating locks and eating far too much. A lot of cruising on this tour. The size of China can be misunderstood looking at the map. This river journey covers a straight line distance of 470 miles and the Yangtze is far from straight!
Lots of lectures, presentations, and on-boaard activities available. Reading and catching up on much needed R & R was our chosen option.
About 45 minutes from Xi’an is the site of the Terracotta Army, one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century.
During a drought in1979, some farmers decided to dig a new well. They unearthed some bronze, which they sold, and a terracotta head, which one thought would look good in his home.
Coincidentally, a journalist from Beijing was in Xi’an on an unrelated assignment and heard about the bronze (which were arrowheads) and on his return to Beijing informed the authorities.
Luck also played a part. The well was dug at an extreme corner of the site. A few metres in the wrong direction and the site would have remained undiscovered.
Nothing you’ve seen or read prepares you for the scale. There are three pits still being excavated. It will take decades to finish the work.
We were told that:
The whole site is mind-boggling! Vast buildings in an equally vast and beautiful park (but you somehow don’t notice!).
We had a delicious lunch at a factory that makes (and surprise, surprise) sells terracotta models and other items at stupid prices. Everyone in China appears to work in one of catering, sales or marketing! Bartering is a way of life; prices can fall by 60% (even when you’ve been told they’re ticketed prices and a special 20% discount will be available to your group).
We were back at the hotel for around 3pm and totally exhausted. We decided to skip the included dinner and instead chilled out with a room service supper, Kindles and an early night.
School Videos include sound.
We travelled to the suburbs of Jingzhou to visit a public school sponsored by Viking. The suburbs gave us what I think is our first look at “real” China.
The main street was much more as I thought it would be: not exactly poverty but, by Western standards, pretty close.
We were greeted at the gate by students playing drums and then treated to some performances by the pupils. I could imagine them chatting on the way to school today:
“Oh dear. Another batch of tourists. Who’s doing the dancing today?
You? Bad luck!”.
They get a visit every 10 days.
The school has about 800 pupils and if there’s one thing you notice when visiting overseas schools: Kids are the same worldwide. Noisy, nosey, keen to interact, unembarrassed; you could be anywhere.
We spent some time in a classroom and had a great visit.
The rest of the day was spent cruising to Wuhan, from where we’ll fly to Shanghai.
It seems we have offended some ancient Chinese deity: drizzly nasty rain. Can’t be helped.
All morning we sailed the Yangtze to Shibaozhai, still in Chongqing province. The town is a “relocation town”, one of those built to house some 1.24 million people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project. A town of maybe 30 thousand.
The pagoda and temples were built in the 17th Century and had to be specially protected from the rising river levels. You reach it across what is called “The Drunken Bridge”. Each panel of about 3 meters is a mini suspension bridge of wired planks which have a wobbly effect as you walk.
To be honest, it’s interesting, but not spectacular. Its significance to Chinese history that is important, but if that has little significance to you, it’s a novel way to risk cardiac arrest climbing its 99 very very very steep interior steps to reach the temples.
Risking the wrath of local deities once again, the temples, to me anyway, looked like contrived tourist photo-stops (but what do I know about Chinese temple art).
It seems whenever we “long noses” appear, shoddy goods' vendors emerge from out of the woodwork. Walking to the temple, the place seemed deserted. Walking back: wall-to-wall “kiss-me-quick” junk everywhere.
Still lots of fun, however, beating back the (shall we say) highly proactive vendors.
Back on-board we continued sailing and I took the opportunity to take some photos of the ship.
Another overnight sailing after dinner.
Before describing today, a few facts we’ve learned about Beijing.
Meanwhile… back on tour.
We set off early, seriously early (7am), to head for the Ba-Da-Ling Hills, about 50km north of the city. Traffic is, apparently, the main concern of all tour drivers and couriers. There are several places to access the Great Wall (obviously, as it’s thousands of miles long). Of those around Beijing, as renovation and maintenance is constant, some have only re-opened recently.
We headed to the most famous and oldest section. (About 600 years since last maintained).
It is a spectacle. Also, as we’re quickly discovering, with China being such a populous country, a very busy place. It opens at 6:30am and signs indicate that a maximum of 65,000 people will be allowed on this section of the Wall at any one time!
We arrived just after 8am and there must have been upward of 50 tour buses already there.
After a half-mile uphill stroll(!) from the parking area you reach the entry, a courtyard of shops and the admission gates. After entry you choose the “easy” south way, or the “hard” north way. Our guide explained these designations are in fact the opposite. The “easy way" is steeper but has steps. These are irregular and sometimes quite awkward. It is also the busiest as Chinese people like to follow the route Chairman Mao took when he walked the Wall. The “hard way” is mostly inclines with hand rails, has better viewpoints and is far less crowded.
We went north, taking his advice. The inclines are often steep but manageable. He was proved right, however. After we’d returned from the north section, we tried the south (easy) section. It was wall-to-wall (sorry!) people with some very tricky passages and pathways.
From the Great Wall, we travelled to a very up-market Jade Factory to see and learn about jade, see it carved, and have an opportunity to become impoverished by making some purchases. Price ranged from around £50 to several thousand. Admittedly, there were many truly beautiful pieces of art and jewellery, but (despite being told otherwise) seemed to be priced for the unsuspecting tourist. (We’d been offered a 25% discount as Viking guests; one lady said she’d negotiated a 50% discount; could she have reached 65%?).
The included lunch was at the factory. It was magnificent!
We moved on to the Sacred Way of the Ming Emperors, a long passageway guarded by statues dating back about 600 years. There is no access, however, to the tombs.
It was a lovely way to spend 45 minutes walking off lunch.
We drove back to the hotel, via the Olympic Par; a chance to see the iconic Birds-Nest stadium and Cube Aquatic centre.
For dinner, we were taken to a restaurant that, until the recent purge by the new President, had been the dining venue for corrupt officials and politicians. Authentic (I think) Beijing Duck and many other courses in beautiful surroundings.
A very long, but also enjoyable and memorable day.
A respectable 8:30am departure for our 10:45am Xianmen Airways flight to Chongqing. Another Skyteam airline, another Viking “don’t do anything” transfer, another new aircraft (B737-800) to China’s largest city (pop: 33million). An under 90 minutes flight with hot food served (wake up western airlines: this is service!).
Our flights were earlier than the summer schedule, so there was time for a bonus visit to the Zoo, China’s Giant Panda breeding centre.
They’re really something to look at. There were 2 month old twin cubs. Could have been the cuddly toys on sale outside.
Surprisingly, we, ourselves, were another tourist attraction. Not many westerners stay in Chongqing, they just pass through going elsewhere. We were the first “long noses” most people had seen. So many tried to stare without staring (which is the height of rudeness in China). A few asked to have a picture taken with us. Children in primary schools learn English as a compulsory subject. One boy, about 10, came up to me: “Hello,” he said. He then tried out all the greetings and questions he'd been taught at school.
Our local guide said he’d be a celebrity at school tomorrow because he’d held a real conversation with a real westerner. She (whose English was near perfect) said the first time she’d spoken to a westerner was at college.
We transferred to the ship, which is superb and settled in before dinner.
Cruising starts tonight at 9:30pm.