You wouldn’t miss it for all the tea in China

The China Orient and Yangtze River Cruise included all international and internal flights, bullet train and high-speed train travel, 4-star accommodation and breakfasts, most dinners, English speaking guides, airport transfers and excursions.  

So while it was not on our list of “must do” destinations, this was an offer too good to turn down and, after checking with a few friends who had done a similar China tour, we went ahead and booked. The itinerary arrived promptly which was good, as it is needed to support the visa application.

We would fly from Brisbane to Guangzhou for nine hours and then take a three-hour domestic flight to Beijing, so it was good to know we would be met and have all transfers organised after such a long day.

Our first and lasting impression of China was the sheer scale of everything.  Guangzhou just north-west of Hong Kong, for example, has a population of 14.5 million.  

China is one of the oldest surviving world civilizations and the world’s fourth largest country with a quarter of the world’s population at 1.25 billion people in 23 provinces.  Australia is the sixth largest country with a population of 24 million – similar to many cities in China. 

There are endless roads and highways, seemingly chaotic congestion, sprawling landscapes of construction sites, tower cranes and skyscrapers as far as the eye could see (which at times was not that far because of the smog).

Temperatures were an average of 8C-19C during our trip in April, with some days as high as 24C-28C.   

It soon became obvious that we would be spending a lot of time travelling the long distances between locations in the cities, but the destinations were well worth it. There were plenty of optional tours too, so we always had the choice of time out or joining cultural experiences and night entertainment.

It is also worth noting that there was no opportunity to shower and dress for dinner on our tour. Meals always immediately followed the day’s excursions and before returning to the hotel. Days were full and we often returned late to the hotel.

The first day out was in Beijing and off to Olympic Park to see the Birds Nest and Water Cube made famous in 2008, and then on to Tiananmen Square which has a capacity of one million.  There are monuments to the People’s Heroes and Mao Zedong who proclaimed the founding of the people’s republic in 1949. Not surprisingly, there is no mention of the 1989 student uprising and massacre.

From here, it’s a short walk to the Forbidden City, for more than 500 years a palace of the Chinese emperors. 

Back on the bus and off to the Hutong area for an optional tour with a rickshaw ride and meal with a local family.

We soon discovered how, in part, the price of the trip could be so affordable – there were obligatory trips to various Chinese Government enterprises – jade, silk, tea and medicine among them.

The next day was the highlight of the trip. About an hour’s drive out of Beijing we came to the Great Wall of China, which still lives up to its name. It was somewhat surreal to climb on the ancient steps which go on for 8850km and possibly more. We learn it would take longer than 18 months to walk although many sections are now in disrepair or closed. 

The Great Wall was mainly constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and built as a defensive structure.  It has very steep sections, with uneven stesp but magnificent views. 

Sticky rice flour and slake lime was the standard ingredient in the mortar to bind the bricks. It is said that in many places weeds still cannot grow.  We had about two hours to climb and descend and return to the meeting point. 

Then it was back on the bus to return to Beijing for lunch at a local restaurant (5 levels of eating areas), and then a visit a traditional Chinese medical centre.

Some interesting traditional medicine information was provided and during a five-minute foot massage, practitioners arrived to give a five-minute individual health assessment along with  a push to invest in their remedies.

After dinner we rounded off the day with an optional tour to the Kungfu Show at the Red Theatre.  

The next day was a choice of leisure or optional tours of the Temple of Heaven and a visit to see the pandas before boarding, late afternoon, the bullet train to travel at more than 300kmh for the 1100km journey to Hangzhou.

It’s a reasonably small city for China, with about nine million people. Here we see West Lake Wonderland, one of the top 10 scenic areas in China. It is a freshwater lake covering 64sq km and divided into five sections with temples, pagodas, gardens and artificial islands.

Departing early by bus, we set off for the Longjing tea plantation, a charming cultural village where Longjing or dragon well tea has been grown for more than 1200 years.  We were treated to a traditional tea ceremony and learnt the culture of this very expensive tea. 

Then it was two hours on the road to Suzhou, with a population of 10.6million (Brisbane has about 2 million) which is west of Shanghai and known for its canals, bridges and gardens. 

The Master of the Nets Garden is one of the finest traditional, classical and residential gardens in China, built in 1140 and restored many times over the centuries. The Suzhou Grand Canal, the longest in the world, seen from a motorised gondola, is a picture of local life. Some sections date to 5BC. 

A walk through a local market in alleyways beside the Grand Canal is an eye opener with live offerings of toads, eels, cooked sparrows and other unrecognisable “delicacies” to satisfy the adventurous appetite. 

Day 7 was a 7.45am start for a silk factory visit and the trip to Shanghai, which has 24.21 million people.

Only a small fishing village 1200 years ago, it is now the largest city in the world in population followed by Beijing. Here, 10 million people use the subway and about 1000 bus routes each day. Highways are stacked to six levels.

Shanghai is ranked 4th in the world for its skyscrapers, all 145 of them.  Most of the centre is only 30 years old. 

Despite its size, it is a beautiful city. Gardens are planted on the freeways and drape down walls and over pylons. 

The Nanjing walking district and The Bund (embankment) on the Huangpu River is a fascinating walk where the very old meets the new – a walk through time like a living museum.   The Bund once housed numerous banks and trading houses and exchanges from all over the world and lies north of the old walled city of Shanghai.  Here you will also find the French Concession (Quarter). 

After dinner we arrived at our hotel, the Delta Hotel by Marriott.  It was palatial – a lobby with high ceilings, central double staircase, gold peacock statues and sparkling chandeliers, several sitting areas with beautiful furniture, gardens, marble floors and lush carpet, large rooms with double queen beds, automatic toilet with remote controlled bidet and heated seat and views of a park.

The next day we chose the optional city tour, to see the 88-storey Jin Mao Tower and wander in the clouds along a 60m glass skywalk without rails.  We were disappointed to find that they don’t allow anyone over 59 to do this walk. 

The Urban Planning Exhibition Centre in People’s Square is a must. 

The Maglev or magnetic levitation train runs for only 30.5km which it covers in just eight minutes with a top speed of 431km. It runs at top speed only between 3pm and 3.45pm due to huge cost but is worth the ride. 

The nearby market, the biggest indoor market in China, has so many corridors it is necessary to takes notes as you go to avoid getting lost. And be prepared to haggle if you are shopping. Markups are huge for just this purpose.

We leave our fine Shanghai Hotel to join the high speed train to Yichang where we board the Yangtze River cruise for the final leg of our trip.

If taking the train, take some snacks as the dining car sold only mysterious and sometimes questionable, Chinese food, drinks and alcohol. The train trip was a chance to get out of the city and see some of the smaller towns, waterways, farmland, mountains, plains, rivers and paddy fields.

We finally reached Yichang around 10pm and boarded another bus to jin the ship at Maoping Port. The locks are now reserved for commercial traffic only. 

Yichang, a trading port and transportation hub along the Yangtze River since ancient times,  is the “Gateway to the Three Gorges”. 

We boarded the President No.7 cruise ship with 460 other passengers for the 648km journey over four nights and five days up the Yangtze to Chongqing. 

The standard suite was similar to most cruise ships and had a balcony.

A western and Chinese buffet were offered for all meals.  Any excursions were to be paid in advance at the ship’s desk.  It is important to note that unless you do an excursion (all by local guides), you will not be allowed to disembark.

We booked in advance prior leaving Australia through our travel company who offered a special deal of three for the price of two. These were Three Gorges Dam, Shennong Stream and Shibaozhai Pagoda which were excellent value and highly recommended.  We disembarked at Fengdu early morning and given a tour of Chongqing before heading to the airport for the flight home.

All up, it would have to be the best value for money ever experienced, with so many far-flung destinations and flights, meals and accommodation covered for less than $2000 each.

Tour guides were informative and helpful so unless you speak Mandarin, I can’t think of a better way to see China.