TRAVELLED SEPTEMBER 2015
There are 264 million cars in China and right now they all appear to be in front of me. You haven't seen traffic jams like it - it's the world's biggest dodgem ride. This is Beijing and for your own safety and sanity when on any transport you should ensure your eyes are shut. It's an extraordinary city of old and new, wealth and poverty, luxury and slums. It's the first step of our trip across parts of China, a vast landscape with 1.6bn population to match. Western tourists are ever more common but they come with a government warning. Don't display any banners or carry out any protests or, our guide tells us, he will pretend not to know you, as we venture on to Tiananmen Square - the world's biggest.
We weave across it, watching the Chinese patiently and carefully scraping chewing gum off the paving stones, and enter the Forbidden city. These remarkable palaces also span a huge area and thousands flood them, but disappointingly they all look alike. We have our own tour escort and while there is some English spoken in the city we receive our info and instructions through head sets.
The most danger you are in while in China is of getting lost. And no more so than on the greatest attraction of all, the 5,500 mile Great Wall of China, we access it at Badaling about an hour's drive from the capital. Modern day there is a cable car to take you up on to it which is just as well. The wall literally runs for ever, a staggering sight and it's an ordeal to clamber up the sharpest of inclines for that crucial snapshot. You feel you have reached the top of the world. ..along with about half its inhabitants.
We stayed in Beijing for three days before moving on to Xian, a 90 minute flight. China has its hit list of tourist traps and we were pounding them hard. It was only 30 years ago that by chance the extraordinary Terracotta warriors were literally unearthed. Incredible row upon row of life-sized solders. The theory is the emperor ordered them to be carved out to protect him in death. It's an astonishing find and even now the excavations continue. It's one of those seeing is believing occasions, breathtakingly awesome. And breathtaking is the pace we are moving at.
Another day another flight, this time to Chongqing, a city which houses a stunning 35 million people and is the country's most populated. It's here we pick up our river boat and five nights cruising along the filthiest river in the world - the Yangste. For all its dirt we see people bathing in it, doing their washing and after two days we spot the wreck of a boat which sank killing 300 people. How could that have happened? We cruise beyond 10 miles of continuous multi-storey blocks of flats- well the masses need somewhere to live. Wherever you go there are huge high rises on the go.
The heat and humidity even in September is stifling as we walk over the world's dodgiest bridge to climb the pagoda at Zhongxian. The ascent is energy sapping and people fall away at each level, reaching the top is a triumph. Mercifully it's cooler as we drop in at a local Chinese school where kids as young as five put on a song and dance show. It's a Saturday but the whole roll turns up. We swell their funds on the way out as a thank you.
The pace has been frantic but we eat, sing and dance our nights away on board on the way to Wuhan, our gateway to Shanghai. Before that we head down the famous Three Gorges, one of the most picturesque river rides in Asia. Half way down we bizarrely find an isolated building on a pontoon - a river police station. Extraordinary, in the middle of nowhere.
Inevitably our travels take us to the famous Dam which, via some enormous locks, allows vessels to make the drop into the river 24 hours a day. It's an astonishing feat of engineering and the whole complex is so large it's actually the size of a small town, where all the workers live. The adventure rumbles on, and so far our group has one dislocated shoulder and one broken hand. But with Chinese efficiency they are mending, the pieces quickly put back together as they show and holiday goes on.
We head off to Shanghai. And it could easily be London. It's the world's most modern city and as you survey the light show on the Bund you can see why. Here there are few street food sellers, lots of modern bars and pubs, but gone is the manic crazed pace of Beijing ...and not a car horn to be heard. Shanghai is western, Shanghai is rich. Shanghai is booming marevllous. We have many highlights on our whistle stop tour, but the famous acrobat show is jaw dropping. We take in the museum and the charming Yu Yuan gardens.
We decline the cheap genuine Rolex watch and chuckle as the locals' demands for £20 for goods peters out at around £2. It was just a flavour of an amazing country, our hotels were luxurious, a far cry sometimes from what you found just outside the front door. Before we know it we are off home, a 4.30am date with the airport. We leave a little baffled, cruising down wide, empty roads just wondering where on earth those 264m cars had vanished to.
For more information visit: https://www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk
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