That’s impossible! Flights to and from China, two internal flights, a dedicated coach and driver in each city to take us to all the sites, an English speaking tour guide the whole way, five-star accommodation, a four-day Yangtze River Cruise, bullet train from Wuhan to Shanghai and all but a few of our meals during the 12 days provided. My wife, Karen and I were sceptical. What was the catch?
We’ve travelled enough to know what to expect and how to look after ourselves if the proverbial wheels fall off the wagon at some point. Turns out each of the 30 or so members of our tour group had the same thoughts when we compared notes at the start of the tour. Something is bound to be wrong with this deal we all thought.
Karen and I paid an additional fee to enable us to fly out of and return to Brisbane. The base fee was for those flying out of Sydney or Melbourne. We flew with China Eastern Airlines -- an affiliate of Qantas -- and apart from a few meals that did not suit my pallet, the flight was the same as any other economy class long flight that we’ve taken. We flew Brisbane to Sydney with Qantas, Sydney to Kunming and then Kunming to Beijing with China Eastern. I’ve decided it’s not necessarily the airline that makes or breaks the journey, it’s the passengers on board. On this occasion most of the international passengers behaved themselves and we were happy with the flights to and from China.
Our first internal flight from Kunming to Beijing was another matter. Karen and I stuck to the 5kg carry on weight restriction but the locals seemed to regard the weight restriction as a guide not a requirement. I think it is accurate to say most of the locals carried on far in excess of 5kg. I remember one passenger must have had at least that in the bag of fruit he carried on board along with the rest of his belongings. Available storage space was quickly taken up leaving the last to board with nowhere to put their carry on luggage.
Now I know why, when boarding time arrived, there was a rush of people who pushed and shoved each other aside and squeezed onto the single stairway up into the aircraft. The cabin crew had next to no chance of checking passengers on board as they pushed passed them on the tarmac and climbed the stairs. Karen and I decided that being polite was not going to cut it! We elbowed our way on board as well. I was not surprised to hear, included in the departure briefing and welcome on board message, a warning that there was a fine for any passengers caught “jostling” for luggage space.
Our second internal flight, later in the tour, was much more orderly. We had a lengthy delay before take off from Beijing to Chongqing but we were on board a new Boeing Dreamliner and therefore were very comfortable.
Our tour guide, Mike, met us at the airport in Beijing and led us to a mini bus for our ride to the hotel we would call home for the next few days. This hotel set the standard for our accommodation during the 12-day tour. It was five-star in every way except the water was not suitable for drinking. We were supplied with bottled water for our personal use. We tend to rely on bottled water wherever we are in the world so this wasn’t much of a hassle.
Looking back on the hotels we stayed in, the only remark I would make is that the bathrooms sometime had signs of wear and maybe needed a little bleach in some corners. Everything else was as you would expect in a good quality hotel. The food was delicious, plentiful and varied. There was always a Western alternative if the local cuisine wasn’t what you wanted. The wait staff were courteous and efficient.
We arrived in Beijing to find what the locals call 'Beijing Blue' skies. A rare treat in a city that struggles with air pollution. Winter had arrived and with it temperatures hovering just above zero degrees. The sky made a beautiful backdrop to the the city’s iconic sites and with the tourist season at its end, we enjoyed these sites virtually crowd free.
Mike mentioned at one point that this was his last tour of the season, hence the unebelieveably low cost for the tour. Karen and I quite enjoy the cold weather. It makes for a contrast to the typically hot and humid weather we have at home on the far north coast of New South Wales. If that means we can get bargain prices for our trips, good on us!
First day out we visited Beijing Zoo. I could have watched the antics of the pandas all day long but we were on a schedule. We had lots to see: the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The next day we travelled to a section of the Great Wall. All of these spectacular places with the Beijing Blue sky in the background. At night we took a tour of the 'Old City'.
The 'Old City' has been maintained for heritage and cultural purposes, as well as a drawcard for tourists. This part of the city is low rise and crowded with alleys and tiny shops at ground level and residential space above. It was the Beijing Karen and I enjoyed exploring and getting lost in 20 years ago. As a stark contrast, the low rise areas all around it have been knocked down and replaced by towering modern residential and commercial buildings. It appears the 'Open Door Policy' of president Xi has paid off and the economy is booming. At what cost to the traditional culture of the country I’m not sure.
This was what we found as we visited city after city on this tour. Chongqing, Wuhan, and Shanghai, just as examples, are strikingly modern cities. Twenty years ago the streets of the cities were congested with push bikes as the people jostled their way to and from work or to the market places. Today the streets are still very busy but with new cars and electric scooters.
The night lights are brilliant! Courtesy of electricity from the Three Gorges power stations we were told.
It appears the China we visited 20 years ago does not exist anymore. In its place there is a prosperous country that, at least from the casual observers point of view, provides a very comfortable standard of living for its citizens and according to world news is rapidly becoming a world financial leader. I came home with the feeling that this was exactly the impression president Xi and his government wanted visitors to the country to take home.
If I wanted another example of the might and capabilities of the country then the four days we spent on the Yangtze River cruising through the Three Gorges and seeing the massive hydro electricity project and the five-step ship lock system was it. The history of the project is sad and exciting at the same time. To mitigate the effects of flooding along the Yangtze River a massive dam was constructed that necessarily caused the Three Gorges to be flooded. Millions of people had to be moved to higher ground and new cities needed to be built to accommodate them.
Side trips to the Goddess Stream and the Water Village showed us the natural rugged beauty of this area and gave us a glimpse of the traditional lifestyle of the people whose lives were changed in order to build the dam.
Our cruise ship, The Sinorama Gold 3, was a five-star ship. We disembarked at Wuhan and took the high speed train from there to Shanghai. Mike told us that the train was capable of travelling up to 350km/h but typically stayed below 250km/h. On our journey we got as fast as 248km/h according to the display on the monitor in the carriage. Interestingly, the train journey from Wuhan to Shanghai is more time efficient than a flight between the two cities.
Shanghai at night is virtually ablaze with lights. Each of the massive buildings are featured in a choreography of lighting effects. The best view is from a cruise boat on the harbour, itself and other boats like it also lit up, adding to the spectacle. By day the city is a bustling modern city which proudly shows off its special historic architecture. The British sector, the French sector and yes, the Chinese sector each providing unique experiences for visitors.
A visit to China wouldn’t be complete without a stop off in a silk factory and silk embroidery studio. While the silk art was sadly beyond our budget, we did find a beautiful silk filled doona that we bought as our special souvenir. I can’t wait for winter.
Flying with China Eastern had an unexpected advantage on the return trip home. Clearly as an encouragement for tourists to spend up while visiting China, our luggage allowance almost doubled for the homeward leg.
We had a direct overnight flight from Shanghai to Brisbane and the 12-day tour was over.