China is an extraordinary and a fascinating country, where tranquillity and clamour, ancient and modern, natural and man-made co-exist in perfect harmony. A quick look at a map of the world tells you China is vast, with treasures in every corner. For the visitor, the challenge is finding a way to ‘see it all’ when you have only fourteen days to do it!
We solved this problem by booking ‘Wendy Wu’s Wonders of China‘ tour. The guided tour criss-crossed the country taking in Beijing, Xian, Chongqing, Yangshou, and Shanghai. The ‘we’ in this case was me, my wife Susan, and our best friends Judy and Ray.
The itinerary meant we would visit the iconic sites you dream about seeing, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, the pandas in Chongqing, and the Bund in Shanghai. But it gave us more. It included a four-day cruise on the Yangtze river, a day trip on the Li River, and a whole lot more besides! To cover this much ground, we had to take four internal flights, the quality and comfort of which rivalled anything to be found in Europe.
So, we walked the Great Wall. Came face to face with the Terracotta warriors. Explored the Forbidden City. Got close up and personal with pandas. Lazed around on rivers snaking through dramatic landscapes and picturesque countryside. But it was the experiences away from the tourist hot-spots that enchanted us the most.
Don’t get me wrong, the iconic places were amazing. They absolutely have the ‘Wow’ factor. The sheer scale of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army are breath-taking. But China, like everywhere in the world, is as much about the people as it is about the places. As this was a group tour, we joined eleven other people on arrival in Beijing. And a nicer bunch of folk you couldn’t wish to find. They made the holiday what it was. Outstanding! To this day, we are in touch and even held a reunion dinner in London’s Chinatown to re-live the experience!
Yet it was the local people we encountered who contributed so much to the success of our holiday. One example of this was a lady living in the Hutongs whom we visited for lunch one day. The hutongs are a collection of houses in Beijing, where narrow alleys pass for streets and residents share communal toilet blocks. The housing style, with four houses sharing a common courtyard, was created in the 13th Century, so it was a privilege to go inside someone’s home.
Our host served us traditional Chinese home cooked food, tasty and plentiful. An enchanting glimpse of what traditional life in China was, and is like.
We ate as a group for most meals, sampling various local dishes in restaurants selected for us by the guides. Whilst the food was good, it was not exceptional, the menu choice a tad limited across the fourteen days. That said, the conviviality the group brought to the table resulted in some delightful evenings. If you are partial to a glass of wine with dinner, China may prove challenging! It did for us! Despite display cabinets full of wine at the entrance to many restaurants, ordering it was difficult as they never had any in stock! It transpired the ‘cabinet wine’ was for regular customers, some sort of loyalty scheme – not for the likes of us! Such was the scarcity of vino that we drank at least one hotel dry, as well as the river cruise boat. Still, when there were only a couple of bottles to go around the whole group it wasn’t difficult to do!
Then there were the people you never met who, by their effort, left indelible memories for us to take home. And nowhere was this truer than in Yangshou. Despite pouring rain (it rains a lot in China) we watched a spellbinding show that boasted a cast of over six hundred performers! Set on the water, it was, without doubt, the most spectacular live theatre I have ever seen. People we never actually met, but people we will always remember putting on an unforgettable show!
Someone I won’t forget in a very long time was the acupuncture doctor up the Yangtze. No, that’s not a euphemism – we really did meet him on the river! He was the resident star turn onboard our river cruise and, as it transpired, I was to be his accomplice! He gave an acupuncture demonstration and used my leg to stick the needles into! It turned out to be a priceless experience. Not because of the needles, but because of the look on the faces of our group. Seeing them squirm in their seats at the sight of the needles disappearing into my calf made my day! A word of caution. I would not recommend anyone normally doing this on their travels. But the hygiene standards on the boat were of a five-star quality so I felt it would be OK, and it was!
Another lasting memory of the trip was most unexpected. It occurred toward the end of our journey when we reached Shanghai. It was the Maglev train, the world’s fastest. At 430 kilometres per hour, the train operates between the centre of Shanghai and the airport. And we got to go in it!
Seeing the speed hit 430 on the carriage monitor and to experience the sensation when two trains pass at that speed, is to behold a technological marvel. While people still practice the ancient art of tai chi in local parks and parents search for suitable partners for their children, these ultra-fast trains rocket past. It was almost surreal, but a lasting impression of a land rich in ancient history and tradition that is not afraid to embrace the future. The Ming emperors would approve.
So, as we said goodbye to China we took with us a kaleidoscope of memories. Not just the iconic sites, the hutongs, the rivers, and the people, but all the other things we had seen and done. Pagodas, temples, palaces, caves, museums, gardens, even a ghost city!
We loved every minute of it!