So I didn’t know a fat lot about China, a population in the billions, hugely successful, a rising middle class, great food and as culturally different as it gets. Hence for once I decided to do a holiday that covered some ground, got me out of my comfort zone, and might prove to be the full-fat exploration of the nation that is taking over the world.
Distant Journeys have packed a lot in for the money – in three weeks we covered thousands of miles with internal flights, three bullet trains, and a three-day river cruise down the Yangtze. It would be impossible to navigate this lot on your own as pretty much no-one speaks English and the red tape involved was a full-time job for our guides – we needed two on every leg. Security checks everywhere are complicated by the fact that the Chinese are suddenly tourists in their own country, so often we’d be navigating football crowd type numbers doing some of the same itinerary as us. We’d smile at them and they’d smile at us and take photos; the people are utterly enchanting – although have sharp elbows. You can forget queuing, push – it’s the only answer.
Most difficult of all, you can’t google anything. As in nothing. How disenabling is that! There was a moment when I stepped off the cruise ship in the middle of the Yangtze to visit a pagoda at the last minute. I walked round a town down on its luck, devoid of new affluence but with a big fat pagoda in it, and realised that I had stepped off the boat with a mobile that was running out of charge, no passport and no credit cards. I got distracted buying little pandas to hang on the Christmas tree (as you do) and realised that missing that boat would have been catastrophic. I simply have no idea how I would ever have got out of that place on my own. Never have I been so aware of the consequences of missing a boat. It wasn’t that I ever felt threatened, or in danger exactly, but simply that the umbilical cord with the West was stretched to breaking point at times. This is a holiday for the inquisitive tourist.
We did all the biggies – The Great Wall (utterly amazing, the steps are all uneven to stop armies from running along it and the scale of it is astonishing), Tienanmen Square with thousands and thousands of Chinese waiting in line for a glimpse of Mao’s tomb – although what they did when they got there I’m not sure, the Terracotta Army and the sheer wonder of each soldier, all looking like they were captured in a moment almost from a photo, and the sole of the shoe of a kneeling archer – it could have been from a Clarks shoe, but made in 246 BC.
Of course, we saw the pandas – I got close enough to to hear one munching through the bamboo and saw the panda nursery with a play pen and a rocking horse. Needless to say I have come home with pandas a plenty.
In Pingyao our hotel had a traditional kang bed which occupied the entire width of the room with a day table in the middle of it for TV remote/snacks/room service – ideal if you were lucky enough to have time to spend the entire day in bed. Something of a personal ambition which I have not yet managed and certainly not one you’d have time to do on this holiday. Gosh I loved that bed.
It’s the people and their work ethic that I will remember most. We visited one city that had 33 million living in it – Chongqing – and none of us had even heard of it. They work hard. Most of them have a two hour commute from the new towns that sprawl endlessly from every city and they live in apartment blocks within washing line distance of one another which they’re buying with mortgages rather than renting, and they are even paying for their children’s education after 16. Communism seems to be changing with the move from the country to the cities that continues to gobble up the land so evidently. 30 years ago only 10% of them lived in the city and now 60% do. That’s a lot of apartment blocks.
Perhaps then it is not surprising that the parks are the thing. That’s where to head to see the Chinese enjoying themselves. They make use of every inch, setting up choir practice, dance classes, games and tai chi.
There’s a distinct feeling of being watched. Managed, even. There are cameras everywhere, photographing every vehicle, and the facial recognition screens in airports tell you your flight and gate departure number without you even having to key anything in. Notably the news from Hong Kong is blacked out immediately it begins. It wouldn’t be a country that many of us could live in.
My favourite city was Shanghai, it’s a really buzzing city with amazing architecture and easily the most cosmopolitan of all the cities we visited. Perhaps that’s why I liked it so much.
What to take:
Tea bags and mini cheddars you will crave cheese so badly by Day 10.
Loo roll – a distinct absence apart from the hotel rooms.
What not to take:
A good book. You’ll be busy looking out of the window and cramming it all in.
23-day Very Best of China tour operated by Distant Journeys
Prices from £3,695 per person
Includes: Return scheduled flights with Cathay Pacific or Emirates, all domestic flights, coach and rail travel, hotel accommodation, three-night Yangtze river cruise, 42 meals, many sightseeing tours and the services of a Tour Manager and local guides.
Holidays are fully ATOL protected.
01695 577 961