Home Up China 2

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Visiting China wasn't something we'd seriously thought about, but we were seduced by the flyer sent by Voyages Jules Verne, exhorting us to visit the Three Gorges area of the Yangtse River before the first stage of flooding caused by the new Dam engulfs the region in 2003.

We decided on Easter 2002 as being a suitable time for a visit since the climate can be very unpleasant in the summer. Our tour was originally set at 8 nights but this was changed at the last minute, allowing us just 7 nights in China to see a great number of sights. We had a total of 2 international and 3 internal flights, a 4 night cruise and numerous coach journeys so it was exhausting, but well worth the effort.

30th/31st March

We arrived at Heathrow on Saturday afternoon and spent several very long and boring hours going through various check-in procedures in numerous queues. We met Avril, one of our Jules Verne reps. Our flight was with Air China and I was pleased to find that they have a bigger seat pitch than most airlines - 34", so we did have more leg room than on past long-haul flights. However, we soon found that what they lose in seat revenue is saved on other amenities. No amenity packs, despite a 9 or 10hr flight, and very little in the way of entertainment - just badly positioned central screens showing poor quality films etc that kept breaking down.  There was an 8hr time difference (7hrs when we returned) and we landed in Beijing at 11am Chinese time. On landing, we were greeted by Regina, the other JV rep, and our first two CITS (China International Travel Service) reps. There were 65 of us on the trip so we were split into 2 coachloads. 

We were told that due to traffic, we would be visiting The Temple of Heaven before reaching our hotel, and were given packed lunches to eat on the coaches. It would have been nice to have been able to go to our hotel to freshen up but then I realised that in fact our rooms wouldn't have been ready for us that early. Our luggage was sent on to the hotel separately - this was to happen each time we moved on to another place. To save some time, we would be given our room keys when back on the bus after the visit. The lunch consisted of a large roll, giant cookie, and can of coke. It was the last western style food we would have until landing back in the UK. Many of our party were amazed by the weather. The guidebooks all talk of average temperatures of around 13-16 in April, and yet it was well into the 20s. Some of us had checked out the long-tern forecast on the web, and so were prepared, but many had brought winter woollies, sheepskin hats and mitts etc! Temperatures were forecast to reach 30 over the next few days. We arrived at the Temple of Heaven at 2pm and had just 40 minutes to explore! It's situated in Beijing's largest park, Tiantan Park, a lovely peaceful place with many thousands of trees. There were lots of people resting in the many shady areas. The Temple consists of a number of buildings, the largest of which is shown to the left - called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, it was where the Emperor would come twice yearly to pray to his ancestors for a good harvest. It was built completely from wood , without a single nail, and measures 123ft (37.5m) at the highest point. 

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Once back on the bus, it was found we had the wrong set of keys so that time-saving plan didn't work. Our bus arrived at our hotel, the Xindadu, first, so we had to wait! But it gave us time to cash some money and buy some water. Until recently there was a separate currency for tourists but now everyone uses the same one, the Yuan - there are about 11 to the GB£ or 8 to the US$.  We had 20 minutes for the speediest shower and change ever  before setting off again for the Great Wall. We'd been expecting to go to the section at Badaling but were fortunate to visit Jiayuguan instead. This section has only recently started catering for tourists and because it was late afternoon by now, wasn't at all busy. In fact we were the only people on the Wall in that area, which was so much nicer. We had two choices of route - the one we decided on was the 'semi-circular' and we were told it would take at least an hour, without any breaks. It looked incredibly steep and we were exhausted, not having slept for very many hours, but we hadn't come all this way to be feeble! So we tackled the longer walk and set off uphill. The steps are of varying sizes, from one to four bricks in depth (and these were BIG bricks!). We struggled with the threes and panicked when we saw the fours, but made it eventually, not without a lot of huffing and puffing, I must confess! It's OK for Martyn with his long legs, but we shorter people found it much more difficult, as you can see in the photo. It's not ALL uphill - every now & again you go down - which means you then have to go back up again even more! The views were wonderful and we were so glad we'd made the effort - an unforgettable experience.

Our next stop was the Badaling section of the wall where we had our first Chinese meal. We were seated at round tables of 10 with a revolving 'lazy Susan' in the centre. Several small dishes were placed around the Susan, containing things such as peanuts and small pieces of spam-like meat. We had a small plate each (about 4" in diameter) and a small rice/soup bowl. Plus chopsticks and a small Chinese soupspoon. The main dishes came along gradually, starting with meat, then fish, vegetable, rice, soup, ending with fruit. It was difficult to over-eat. You can't get much on a pair of chopsticks and safely transfer to your plate! We did take to using the soupspoons but that wasn't much easier! We had a glass of weak beer or water each included - any extras were charged separately. our meal arrangement was fullboard. All our meals would be taken in this way, with no set places to sit, so we got chance to meet and chat to most of our colleagues during the week. I have to say this was the first holiday in which I didn't gain any weight! 

After dinner we were led through a secret passageway (through the toilets!) to a roof terrace where we could see the Wall lit up. It was very pretty, snaking up the mountain, looking from a distance like a Disney castle perched atop a cliff. We phoned home whilst there - a surreal experience, speaking to Wiltshire from the Great Wall of China on a mobile! Like most places in which we ate, this restaurant came complete with a large souvenir shop and we were to have our first taste of sales pressure. We found it most disconcerting. As soon as you showed even a vague interest in looking at anything, a sales assistant would be at your side, trying to persuade you to buy, they clung like limpets and wouldn't be shaken off. I hate to shop in this way and so refused to buy anything for several days. 

We were then taken back to our hotel and were given the cheering news that we would need to put our luggage outside our rooms by midnight that same evening so it could be loaded onto a bus ready for our early departure to the airport in the morning. Wake-up call was to be at 5.30am, ready to leave at 6.15am. We weren't exactly thrilled at this, especially as we had no proper overnight bag so had to buy one from the hotel shop so we could transport our night things the next day. 

The hotel was really nice - it was a shame we saw so little of it! 


1st April

We were awoken at 5.30 as threatened and were soon ready and checking out, having collected our packed breakfasts - for a speedy getaway. It might have been as well not to bother: a dry roll, 2 smelly hard-boiled eggs, 2 anaemic sausage things, a giant gherkin and a sort of ham sandwich. Not a lot was eaten - luckily. The smell of 60+ boiled eggs would have been too much to bear that time of day! The schedule sounded pretty exhausting - drive to the airport, a flight of nearly 2 hrs to Wuhan, then several hours of driving before reaching Shashi, our destination. Regina & Avril did all the checking in for us and we didn't have to do anything about our luggage - other than pray we would see it again that evening! There was none of this 'Could anyone have tampered with your luggage?' stuff. In fact the flight was shorter than anticipated and we were delighted to be served a proper breakfast. After landing we went to our coaches, and were greeted by our guide. This time we had 'River' who was rather harder to understand than David, our guide the previous day. We had a 2hr drive before a comfort break and then a further hour before stopping for lunch. The coach seats weren't very comfortable, having insufficient leg room. I guess this is because in general, Chinese people are much smaller than we westerners. This is perhaps a good point at which to mention the loos. Most public ones should be avoided where possible and be prepared to squat. There are few of the 'sit-down' variety, although disabled facilities tended to be more familiar. We did get used to the squatters, although it wasn't always easy  - I shall say no more!

Lunch was taken in a 4 star hotel  but did NOT live up to expectation. I can confidently say it was one of the worse meals I have ever had. I suppose the chickens feet served at the beginning didn't help. It was all very bland and not really worth the effort. Virtually  everyone agreed at the end of the holiday that it was the worst meal of the trip. To add injury to insult, I then developed an appalling headache which I didn't shake off until the early hours of the next morning.

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 After lunch we went to the Jingzhou Museum which  contains a perfectly preserved corpse of a Han dynasty county governor who died in 167BC and whose mummified body was found in 1975. His innards were delightfully displayed next to him. We only had 45mins so just had time to visit the pottery and silk sections. Pity really, the buildings were lovely and the exhibits worthy of a longer look. 

We then moved on to the city walls. It started to rain slightly as we arrived but we were still able to appreciate the views across the city. It's a musical place - on one side was a man playing a flute. Such western delights as Jingle Bells.......! On the other side it was more traditional - a guy playing a Chinese stringed instrument. Just as we were coming down from the wall, I saw a massive flash of lightening - wish I'd had the video camera ready! The timing was perfect as we just made it back into the coach before becoming drenched.  

We had a short drive to the river where we joined our ship, the MS Zhaojun for a 4 night cruise through the Three Gorges of the Yangtse. Embarking was a little disconcerting as all the crew were lined up to greet us - we didn't feel very comfortable with that. We were joined by 20 or so other holidaymakers that were taking a 3 week tour so the ship was specially chartered for VJV. Our cabin was small but adequate with newly fitted shower room. We were later to wonder why they hadn't dug a deeper channel around the shower area. We found a few items of note in the passenger instructions - along with the list showing the 'fines' for breakage or theft of equipment (the TV would have been worth nicking, but that's about all!), such as 'It is prohibited from using blower, electric stove, charger and other high-powered devices. if you need charging, please contact with the general services desk.' and 'No smoking in bed or on the move. No hanging your clothes on the lampshade.'

 Soon after boarding it was dinner time - same format, better food. We began to realise that rather a lot of our fellow travellers were teachers - that's what comes of booking Easter week! After dinner we flaked out - but the beds were NOT comfortable - rather like a divan without the mattress. I am well padded but every time I moved I felt every bone! Didn't sleep at all well and was still battling with my headache. At this point I was wondering what on earth had  possessed me to pick such a holiday.


Home Up China 2


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