Saturday, 29 August 2009

Up a Smoggy River

Fourteen weary Jules Verne tourists climbed off the coach that had taken them from the city of Shanghai to the River Port of Zhenjang on the Yangtze to board their cruise ship the MV Victoria Rose and their eight night journey upstream along the Yangtze River in China ending at the river city of Chongqing. We shouldn’t have been that weary. Six intriguing days and nights spent in Beijing and finally Shanghai had been fascinating. Our minds were full of the exciting images we'd seen. Our bodies were weary with the walking and climbing wed done, but our weariness was more to do with a coach journey that should have taken three hours from Shanghai to the River Port. The fact that China is under construction meant that the motorway from Shanghai to the River Port was still being built as we drove on it, resulting in the journey taking nine hours. The road was so rough that we spent the entire time either hitting the roof of the coach with our heads or jarring our spines on the seats. All of us were dreaming of a relaxing cruise with the highlights being our visit to the new Three Gorges Dam site and to see the magnificence of The Three Gorges before the completion of the Dam in 2009 submerges The Three Gorges leaving just the peaks as islets above water. But how relaxing was this cruise going to be?

The Yangtze River in China is the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. The River Yangtze is over three and a half thousand miles long with more than seven hundred tributaries. We were to sail one thousand, three hundred and twenty miles of the Yangtze River over eight nights with frequent shore excursions. Ten percent of Chinas population live and work along its banks. Almost half the crops eaten by the Chinese are grown along the fertile banks of the River Yangtze including rice, wheat, cotton and maize. But the first impression of the River Yangtze at Zhenjang as we boarded the MV Victoria Rose at 10.30pm is industry, factories, rusting freight and cargo ships, ferries, cruise ships and the lasting memory of smog.

The MV Victoria Rose was comfortable and spotlessly clean and a very welcoming sight after our long coach journey. The cabins were a reasonable size with very sleep inducing beds and adequate bathrooms, complete with a wet-room which I loathe, television, telephone and efficient air conditioning. I stress the importance of air conditioning in China in general and on the River Yangtze in particular. The temperature during these eight days at the end of September remained in the 80 degrees Fahrenheit range but the humidity soared from 50% to a suffocating 90%. Bottled water was supplied daily free of charge in our cabins and is essential to prevent dehydration. The MV Victoria Rose had a relaxing one-sitting only restaurant, another important factor for happy cruising, and a good bar that hosted gentle entertainment, lectures and demonstrations of kite flying, calligraphy, language lessons, Mah Jongg instruction, traditional painting and early morning Tai Chi shadow boxing with Dr Wu, all fronted by an onboard Cruise Director and his staff. It became apparent after only one day that the fourteen passengers from the UK, ranging in age from thirty two to seventy eight years old, were the only ones from the seventy others, exclusively Americans, which actually drank at the bar. After our time together in Beijing and Shanghai we became even more bonded as we met every evening in the bar for a pre dinner drink and most certainly after dinner for our nightcaps. Travelling in an organised tour group is bit pot luck as there is no escape from the others, but we all got along very well for the entire sixteen days.

So much for the anticipated rest though. The MV Victoria Rose set sail from Zhenjang some time during the night and docked at Nanjing, o few miles upstream. But we didn't sleep for long as the buffet breakfast was being served at 6.45 am and we were to disembark on a shore excursion to visit a Mausoleum in Nanjing. The German Cruise Director was already getting on our nerves as he gleefully told us there were over four hundred steps up to the Mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat Sen, the Father of Modern China who led the 1911 revolution and founded the Republic of China. After lunch we were to make a further visit to a Bazaar and then a Confucian Temple. The Cruise Director had a rather unfortunate manner. He didn't seem entirely suitable in his role as what was in essence in charge of Entertainments. On our arrival the night before after the fraught coach journey we had all wanted a drink at the bar and he'd refused to serve us after because we had a busy day ahead. We were on holiday, not an army assault training course! After out post lunchtime visit to the Bazaar and the Confucian temple we set sail at 3.00pm to travel one hundred and thirty miles to the port of Gui Chi. Now and again the smog cleared on the River Yangtze- a few gaps appeared on the river banks, lessening the effect of industrial smoke belching out of the factories and coal mines that line so much of the sometimes obliterated river banks.

The next day was even more threatening. By this time we were calling our Cruise Director Herr Flick! With great joy he told us that breakfast was at 5.15am as we had a full day shore excursion to the Yellow Mountain from Gui Chi and were scheduled to leave the boat at 6.00am. With even greater joy he told us there are many stairs and steep pathways to climb at the Yellow Mountain but walking sticks were available to buy at the bottom of the mountain. However, even Herr Flick couldn't spoil what was to be a wondrous day out. Yellow Mountain, or Mt. Huangshan, has been named by UNESCO as a world historical and cultural protection area. The day was clear and sunny with no fog. This made us especially fortunate as the seventy two peaks of the Yellow Mountain are enveloped by fog and clouds for three quarters of the year. The majestic peaks, crags and granite rock formations with pine tress growing from every crevice are the inspiration for much of the traditional Chinese landscape paintings with just wisps of mist feathering the summits and the Yellow Mountain is a place of pilgrimage for poets, writers and philosophers.

To reach the top of the Yellow Mountain we boarded a cable car that held one hundred people and took almost fifteen minutes to ascend on what looked to me like a bit of string. We were all more confident when told it was Austrian technology and engineering that had designed and built the whole system. Looking down as the cable car smoothly soared upwards we passed over peaks and gorges and deep ravines, which was a breathtaking and scary experience but stunningly beautiful. We then followed a pathway downwards past the Cloud Gathering Pavilion and then to a mountain restaurant for lunch. This pathway was narrow and steep with nothing but an iron railing on the edge to prevent anybody falling through and into the terrifyingly sheer drop to the valleys and ravines below. At stages along these pathways there were thousands of padlocks on chains on the iron railings. Lovers declare their undying love for each other by locking the padlock onto the rail and throwing the key into the gorge, so expressively romantic? After a delicious Lazy Susan lunch in a restaurant perched high on the mountain we had to climb back up the very steep paths and steps to the cable car station for our descent. The afternoon sun was very hot and immediately after a large lunch we were uncomfortably out of breath but all considered ourselves very lucky to have seen the Yellow Mountain in these weather conditions, as visiting groups only a few days previously experienced high winds and rain and could see nothing of the intoxicating scenery.

It was some relief to discover we had two days sailing upstream with no shore excursions but for one brief evening tour of the city and river port of Wuhan, and thankfully no early morning starts. This gave us the opportunity to discover more about our ship the MV Victoria Rose, perhaps read a book and learn a little more about Chinese culture and traditions from the Cruise Team. The ship had a large lobby and reception area complete with a shop selling jewellery such as Chinese jade and Chinese fresh water pearls, kites, silk clothes and accessories. Reception was manned twenty four hours a day and each of the three passenger decks had an attendant house keeping member of staff ready to meet any requirements. The ratios of staff to passenger appeared to be two to one and they were all attentive, charming and eager to improve their English at every opportunity by engaging in conversation with the guests.

The Dynasty Restaurant served excellent hot and cold buffet style breakfasts at the respectable time of 8.00am with selections of food from traditional Western taste to Chinese style. Lunch was a hot buffet, again with choices to suit everyone. Dinner was waiter service as dish after dish of Chinese style foods arrived and was placed on the Lazy Susan so let the spinning begin! Early bird tea and coffee was served from 6.00am in the Yangtze Club and tea and cookies at 3.30pm every afternoon. I never made the early bird coffee and somehow I never made, or needed, the afternoon tea. Fortunately there is no dressing up on board. People were wearing the same casual clothes to dinner as they had worn to breakfast. The onboard laundry service was so reasonably priced that if I did this trip again I would only pack one set of clothes, wear the other set, and have each laundered on alternate days.

I was disappointed that we couldnt walk right round the MV Victoria Rose outside decks as they were both too narrow and sealed off for access. Although all the cabins had large picture windows overlooking the outside of the ship the cabin doors opened into internal corridors. This made any length of time spent on board feel restrictive. There were two sundecks fore and aft and an observatory top deck. Two online computers, a hairdresser and beautician, a masseur, a library and a doctor were on board. The MV Victoria was non smoking apart from the bar, in the lobby and the outside areas.

The weather was warm enough to sit on the decks in spite of the persistent mist and fog. The Yangtze River was a deep yellowy, muddy colour, probably because of the tons of sewage and industrial waste that is dumped in it all the time as well as the enormous amounts of silt that are deposited in the flood season. Only three weeks prior to our visit unseasonably heavy torrential rainfalls had caused extensive flooding with the loss of many lives from people who lived in the villages along the banks of the river. As we sailed along some pleasure was gained from the intermittent breaks from riverside industrial plants and their smoking chimneys allowing us to see more clearly and enjoy the landscapes. Rice fields worked by manual labour with the help of water buffalo were scenes that I'd expected along this part of the Yangtze.

The upstream current was very strong so it took us twenty seven hours to travel just 295 miles up the river to Wuhan for a brief two hour visit where we saw yet another Buddhist Temple and led into yet another shop selling yet more Chinese arts, silks, jade, pearls, kites, Mah Jongg sets and calligraphy tools. Although this was just day four on the River Yangtze it was day nine of our visit to China and we were simply jaded out by then and I didn't care if I never saw another artefact or indeed another Mausoleum or Buddha statue. I desperately needed to see nature and not manmade things. But this wasn't yet to be!

The distance from Wuhan to our next stop, Yichang, was 440 miles. Yichang is most famous for the Gezhouba Dam. A massive civil engineering feat completed in 1988 which at the moment is Chinas largest hydroelectric power generator, until the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam, 25 miles further upstream is completed in 2009. Now, most all of the Yangtze cruises begin at Yichang to sail upstream and visit the Three Gorges and the construction site of the new Dam ending at Chongqing or, vice versa, begin at Chongqing and sail downstream via the Three Gorges and finish at Yichang. These trips last three or four days, half the length of our cruise. Considering we had been on board since Shanghai for five days and apart from the magic of the Yellow Mountain I did wonder about the value of these extra days on the MV Victoria Rose. We'd seen no birds, no fish, and no wild life at all, unlike all the other rivers we've sailed on, including the Volga and the Nile, and my lasting impression is of a polluted river, industrial waste, rusty boats and junks and everlasting smog. The MV Victoria Rose crew tried to excite us by telling us to keep a keen eye out for Finless Porpoises and Yangtze Dolphins but once we were told that our Captain had been sailing the River Yangtze for over thirty years and never seen any himself we gave up the search and put our binoculars away!

When you're on a river boat it is very exciting going through the ship-locks on a river and the Gezhouba Dam was no exception. From the moment the back gates closed behind us it took about twenty minutes for the water to pump into the lock to reach the same level as the outside and for the front gates to open, but this was small fry compared to the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Dam has five ship locks. Each lock can hold from five to nine ships. Our passage through each of these locks took a total of four hours. As well as flood prevention the new Dam will create a reservoir over 350 miles long. At the same time displacing almost two million people from their homes and their land but also providing electricity for 80% of the country! Many people are leaving the rural farming areas altogether and taking jobs in the fast expanding industrial areas in the cities.

So how much of the Gorges would we see now that the drowning has begun? The Three Gorges Dam is built in the forty seven mile long Xiling Gorge which was once a dangerous part of the river to navigate because of the currents and the rapids, but not any longer because the water levels have risen as the Three Gorges Dam nears completion. We entered the twenty five mile long Wu Gorge, often described as the most sombre of the gorges because of the steep cliff walls bordering the winding river and the sunlight sometimes breaking in shafts through the splits in the rocks. Then onwards to Wushan where we were to board a small ferry and sail along the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze, and see the lesser gorges. I liked these lesser gorges best of all. The River Daning was clear and blue. We saw monkeys climbing trees, goats clambering up the rocks, plenty of green foliage and wildlife but were sad to realise that these lesser gorges will be submerged once the Three Gorges Dam creates the huge reservoir.

Finally, the five mile long Qutang Gorge where the river narrowed to a matter of a few hundred feet with sheer precipices either side and then onwards to Fengdu The City of Ghosts. It looked like it too as it was shrouded in mist but we had a pleasant on shore visit to the Snowy Jade Caves which were in fact an alternative Wookey Hole. Then our final day on the MV Victoria Rose; we were sailing the last one hundred and fifty miles to Chongqing and our ultimate destination on the Yangtze. As we approached the sub-tropical city of Chongqing I read that it is nicknamed the Furnace or Fog City and I could see why! We couldnt actually see it! Chongqing is one of the few Chinese cities that dont have millions of bicycle riders as it is so hilly, and humid and hot and industrial with towering skyscrapers and flyovers.

Along the cliffs and the precipices that bank the Yangtze through all the Gorges as well as on large stretches of the Yangtze are huge signs in metres showing where the water will stand in 2009. This had a huge impact as we saw the houses, villages and even cities which will be underwater or demolished when the dam is finished. They say that the deep waters will allow ocean liners to sail all the way to the huge city of Chongqing from Shanghai making vital trade links to the western regions of China. They say that instead of reducing the beauty of the Gorges, tourists will be offered submarine trips down into their underwater depths thus increasing the revenue from visitors. They say that thousands of archeologically important sites will be drowned when the Dam is finished. Others argue that many cultural and historical relics are being moved to higher ground.

Our two part visit to China has given us more insight into modern China and where it's going in the world. It is undergoing an industrial revolution. Be prepared to feel tired as there is so much to see and it is a vast country. It will be foggy on the Yangtze. September and October appear to be the driest seasons. During our holiday in China we saw no rain or winds at all. Thank goodness, imagine that combined with the fog? Drink plenty of the freely provided bottled water because the humidity is generally high. Consider the four day Yangtze cruise from Yichang to Chongqing as an alternative to the full Yangtze cruise of eight nights. But try to get to the Yellow Mountain for spiritual refreshment. And although the river boats are luxurious and very comfortable with excellent service and delicious food with plenty of on board culture to stimulate the mind, the continual fog can get to you.

But this wasnt the end of our China adventure with Voyagers Jules Verne and our intrepid little band of travellers. We were to see the threatened species, the Giant Pandas, eating four tons of bamboo a day in Chongqing Zoo but even better than that. We were to take an internal air plane flight on Air China to the beautiful city of Xian to visit the Terracotta Warriors. But that's another story.

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Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Temple of Extreme Moisture

In China the people say they will eat anything with four legs – except a chair and anything with two wings – except an airplane. Thus we were well prepared for our first evening in the capital of China, Beijing, as our local Chinese guide Jackie took fourteen exhausted UK Voyagers Jules Verne travellers through the open air street market in this remarkable city. Three hundred and sixty five days a year from 6.00 am until midnight and in all the extreme weathers these fast-food stalls line the street by the hundred preparing and cooking food for the hungry passers-by.

But what food; Skewers crammed with plucked sparrows; skinned frogs; wriggling scorpions; silk worm cocoons and water rat; all ready to be stir fried and grilled, served and eaten on the go. Snake-burger anyone? Delicious steamed dumplings seemed to be normal fare on this bustling food street and we weren't really shocked at the skewers of scorpions – after all we eat prawns don't we?

So what was our itinery for the sixteen night visit to China? Our holiday was booked with Voyagers Jules Verne and charmingly named 'The Original Yangtze Cruise' as eight nights of our sixteen were to be spent sailing up the vast Yangtze River to include the new Three Gorges Dam and the Three Gorges as they are now before the dam is completed in 2009 and drowns another eighty metres of the mountains that make this part of the Yangtze River so recognisable. The remaining eight nights were to be spent in five star hotels in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian with internal flights between Beijing and Shanghai and after our river cruise a flight from the river port of Chongqing in the Western provinces to Xian to visit the Terracotta Army and then flying back to Beijing for an overnight stay and then the ten hour return flight on China Airways to Heathrow.

Five airplane journeys in sixteen days; A warning disclaimer at the end of our booking confirmation from our travel company Voyagers Jules Verne told us that this trip was strenuous and should not be undertaken by anybody with walking difficulties or health problems. Tired yet?

First impressions of China were vivid and will remain with me always. Beijing has a population of over thirteen million people and covers a land area larger than Belgium. It certainly is a city of the old and the new with cyclists braving the heavy traffic that clogs up the roads for most of the day, plus risking the fumes. China is under construction – bring a hard hat with you as essential travel wear. The people of Beijing are beautiful, both male and female. They are small boned, slim, high-cheek bones, clear complexions and sculptured features, beautifully dressed and always on the move. Our local guide told us that although China has a communist government everyone is a mini-capitalist holding down three jobs at a time.

We visited a local park that was like an outside gymnasium. The majority of the people using the basic equipment were well past retirement age and were supple and able to manoeuvre their bodies into positions that a thirty year old would envy. Music played under the trees as elderly couples danced together. Groups of people practiced Tai Chi together, played ball-games, gambled, sang, played musical instruments and made the most of this free amenity provided by the government to keep a fit body and mind. I somehow couldn't imagine our retired population in the UK making use of walking machines, benches and even a cobbled path that people were walking around and around barefooted.

Another significant impact was how polite and non-aggressive the huge city of Beijing felt. Usually in any big city there can be a feeling of threat and menace but we didn't experience this sensation at all in China. We felt completely safe.

Another huge impact was that after the scruffy, dirty and worn out atmosphere of London Heathrow and the obvious discontentment of the people who have to work there, and then Beijing International Airport was indeed a sharp contrast. Spotlessly clean with polite smiling staff and a very modern, streamlined appearance putting Heathrow to shame at the first impression that it must surely give to our visiting tourists.

Another lingering thought was the absence of wild birds and dogs and cats in Beijing as the only birds we saw were in cages and I pushed the thought of sparrows on a skewer being stir fried right out of my mind. I didn't want to know!

Our group of seven couples with ages ranging from thirty two up to seventy eight got to know each other during dinner on our first night in the revolving restaurant at the top of the extremely comfortable five stars Xixuan Hotel in Beijing. Eating a delicious Chinese buffet meal and gazing over the dramatic skyline of tower scrapers and congested newly built road system choc-a-bloc with gleaming new cars we noticed the descending smog that began to obliterate the tops of the high rise hotels, apartments and office blocks. We wondered – was the smog a warning of things to come?

Being part of a group has its pros and cons. The independent traveller would choose to stop mid-morning while sight-seeing for a coffee or glass of green tea but we knew from prior travel experiences that the host country and their tourist board wants the visitor to see as much of their country as possible. On the other hand, the independent traveller would need more than sixteen days to see everything that we saw – probably more of a gap-year? In one day alone in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square with lunch in a local restaurant en route; dinner at a local restaurant followed by an evening at a Beijing Opera performance; all this without returning to our hotel.

Tiananmen Square is vaster than any news footage can reveal as it covers 98 acres and of course images of the student demonstration in 1989 flash before your eyes. I considered our group of fourteen were pretty intelligent people but we still found ourselves lined up and saying 'Cheese' for a group photo taken with an immense portrait of Chairman Mao as a backdrop. I blame jet-lag!

The Forbidden City will be familiar to many as the setting for the excellent film 'The Last Emperor' The Forbidden City was out of bounds to ordinary people for over five hundred years as it was the home of the Ming Emperors. The last Emperor only left the city after the 1911 revolution but not till 1924 when this, the 24th emperor was expelled by military troops. Considering there are allegedly 9999 rooms all contained in 800 stunning buildings with yellow tiled roofs and surrounded by a moat and high walls it isn't surprising there was a revolution. Translation from Chinese to English was aptly named as 'Chinglish' by our guide as exotically named temples were translated as 'The Temple of Excessive Moisture' and 'The Hall of Preserved Elegance'

The Summer Palace covers twelve square miles – three quarters of which is a man-made lake – but this was built by an Empress using money that was intended for a naval fleet –again – bring on the revolution? However, the landscaping was tranquil consisting of classic Chinese gardens featuring water, rocks, bridges, willows, bamboo, jasmine and traditional buildings showing the balanced Yin and Yang of nature.

At this stage of our trip we had realised that whichever tourist wonder we visited there would be a souvenir shop at the end of it - or a silk factory, or a jade factory, or a pearl factory, or a Chinese traditional landscape painting shop, or a porcelain shop, or an enamel shop, or a silk carpet shop, or a Buddha factory, or a calligraphy shop, or a name-seal shop, or a Chinese tea shop, or a hand-painted snuff bottle shop, or a kite shop; it was endless. On the other hand bargaining with the Chinese was a fun business all undertaken with good nature and a result that pleased both the vendor and the buyer. We had been warned about the 'Hello People' that congregates around any recognised tourist site. 'Hello People' because they called out 'Hello', banged drums, whistled, clapped and shouted to attract attention to their merchandise. But, they were nowhere near as invasive as their equivalents in the Middle East, taking 'No' for an answer with fine humour, even after punching in an inflated price into their large hand-held calculators – let the haggling begin!

A bit about eating out in Beijing and indeed all of China; we were already 'Lazy-Susanned' out! The dishes at both lunch and dinner kept coming one after another on to the spinning wheel, albeit totally delicious but impossible for our group to eat everything. We all felt guilty as we left the table with enough food remaining to feed another group – perhaps it did? A tureen of clear soup, a bowl of rice and a pot of green tea would arrive first, rapidly followed dishes of pork, ribs, chicken, prawns, beef, vegetables and sometimes a whole steamed fish on the bone (picked from a tank of live fish) Then watermelon and pomegranates; Spinning the Lazy Susan was an art form and for kack-handed people like me chopsticks made for awkward and sloppy eating. Although I did like only having small bowl rather than a large dinner plate as this prevented that mass pile up of food on a plate that is the inevitable end-result of a Chinese Take-Away at home.

Morty had to be my food taster in the more Western provinces to protect my mouth from being fire-bombed as they cook with red-hot chilli peppers or lip-numbing wild peppers as in a hot and sour soup. Sadly, whilst in Beijing I mistook a dish of fresh green vegetables as green beans instead of wild green peppers with attention grabbing consequences and an inability to speak for twenty minutes.

Part of our evening city tour in Beijing was a visit to the Opera, a condensed version especially for tourists. Before we entered the Opera theatre we were able to watch the performers applying their make-up and costumes as they got into character. Chinese opera is unique. The facial make-up and costumes identify the characters as good or bad, evil, brave or honest. Everything is very vivid and colourful and the singers 'sing' in a shrieking falsetto and the music sounds like a band tuning up. But the dance and the acrobatics and sense of drama were enthralling made all the more amusing for the Chinglish sub-titles displayed on a screen either side of the stage. The opera visit lasted around one hour and we were all relieved to get back to our comfortable hotel lobby and listen to the excellent female pianist and base player playing tuneful Western classical music as we sipped a few glasses of cold Chinese white wine before bed.

I gather there is some debate as to whether The Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. It stretches for over three and a half thousand miles from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert. It was begun in the 5th Century BC built in small stretches then linked together at the end of the 3rd Century BC unifying the whole of China. As I climbed the steep worn steps on this hot day determined to reach the fourth tower on this minute restored section at Badaling Pass forty-four miles north of Beijing I thought about the forced labour of millions of people who were conscripted to build this wall as a defensive protection against the people of the North.

This section of the Great Wall is the most crowded and surrounded by souvenir stalls run by the 'Hello People' and there are many restaurants. There are quieter places to visit the Wall where the traveller is able to climb in comparative solitude away from the tour groups. The views as I climbed higher up this restored section became more dramatic scanning a wild and rugged landscape with just the sight of the unrestored Wall disappearing into the distance.

Our afternoon was a welcome contrast to The Great Wall and the throngs of people. The Ming Tombs were a relaxing experience. The third Ming Emperor Yongle chose the Shisanling Valley, twenty five miles north-west of Beijing, as the burial place for himself and eventually eleven of his successors. We strolled in the afternoon sunshine through huge marble gates that marked the beginning of The Sacred Way leading to the tombs. As we approached a triple arched gate we were all superstitious enough not to walk through the central arch as this was only used when an Emperor's body was brought through for internment. Rather than face more crowds our guide recommended we enjoyed the peace and tranquillity by following the half mile long Sacred Way route past the eleven unrestored and unopened tombs. Ah! Bliss! The beautiful formal Chinese gardens and huge statues of men and animals carved out of granite gave us a feeling of calm. The fully excavated tomb of Emperor Yongle took thirty thousand people six years to build. It is difficult not to appreciate these labours as I strolled through courtyards, marble terraces and palatial buildings all centred onto The Hall of Eminent Favours – one of the largest wooden buildings in China.

As if this wasn't enough for one day our last night in Beijing was to enjoy a meal of Beijing (Peking) Duck in the Quanjude Restaurant, the largest duck restaurant in the World. This 'Duck Palace' has over forty dining rooms and can serve five thousand meals a day. Needless to say, the gang were a bit travel weary by this time and dissolved into laughter when the expert chef arrived at our table to carve our duck wearing a mask. Some bad taste SARS comments bounced around the group but I put this down to the bottles of very strong Chinese fruit wine that were spinning around the Lazy Susan. I have never been inside such a large and busy restaurant and as we left to return to our hotel at 9.00pm there were hundreds of people, mainly Chinese, queuing to have a meal.

The afternoon of day five we were to fly from Beijing to Shanghai on an internal flight for the next stage of our holiday but on the way to the airport that morning there was one more stop en route to The Temple of Heaven where emperors held their religious ceremonies. But again we were 'Minged' out as we felt culturally drained and all agreed that we were looking forward to our overnight stay in Shanghai and then boarding our river boat, The Victoria Rose, at Yuhan for a relaxing eight night cruise up the River Yangtze. Oh how we were to recall those words 'relaxing' in the days to come!

Tour prices for China vary enormously. This was our sixth holiday with Voyagers Jules Verne as they appear to be in the mid-price range and have always been completely reliable and efficient and always ensure their clients have comfortable and often luxurious accommodation, particularly on more strenuous touring holidays such as this. A Tour Manager is always supplied and they employ professional English speaking and knowledgeable local guides wherever required. The second part of our visit to China will focus on the Yangtze River Cruise, the Three Gorges and the new Dam, the Terracotta Warriors and our exciting trip in a cable car to the top of the Yellow Mountain; plus of course some personal observations – including the fog.

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Monday, 17 August 2009

Towel Art

100_0204.jpg, originally uploaded by mornev.

We are going on a river trip on the River Nile later in the year and this photo taken on board the Prince Abbas steam ship as we sailed Lake Nasser in Egypt several years ago always makes me feel happy.

While we were eating dinner on board on our last night, housekeeping got busy in our cabin using towels and Morty's clothes and sunglasses creating this ghostly figure holding empty envelopes ready to be stuffed with a healthy tip, thanking them for keeping our cabin so beautifully clean and cared for.

Certainly made us laugh and we were happy to give generously for such inspired towel art.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

I Looked Over Jordan and What Did I see

The 10.15 am five and a half hour flight from Gatwick to Aqaba in Jordan was smooth and the time passed quickly. I always get excited flying over deserts and even more so on this trip as we flew over the clear blue Red Sea and the resort of Aqaba, made a U-turn, approached the small airport from the sea landing at 3.30 pm. The immigration formalities were speedy and within half an hour our 'gang' of thirty Voyageurs Jules Verne travellers were seated in our coach with our Jordanian tour guide Omar giving us the basic details of what was happening next as we sped along the road to the Nabotaean rose-red city of Petra for a three night stay in the four star Crown Plaza Hotel; let the adventure of discovering Jordan begin.

We were to travel through the highways and deserts of Jordan staying in Petra, Amman and Aqaba in four and five star hotels, including the Radisson SAS in Aqaba. Even as a young woman I was useless at roughing it so Morty and myself do need the promise of luxury, a comfy bed, a good meal, a bath and a beer at the end of hot and strenuous days spent sightseeing, walking and often bumpy coach rides to prepare ourselves for the following day's excitement and culture.

Even though there had been an incident in August this year with some middle -eastern men renting a warehouse in Aqaba and firing missiles at some USA ships anchored in the Red Sea, missing their target and hitting the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat injuring an Israeli taxi-driver, we felt safe, although in retrospect I realise that we weren't. Unlike our 2004 visit to Egypt we had no armed guards escorting us in Jordan and no physical evidence of security at any of our hotels . Our guide told us how proud the Jordanians are of their King Abdullah, son of the late King Hussein and his British wife, who travels the world as a business man, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase to promote his country.

Our first meal in Petra that evening was memorable. Although buffet-style, the Jordanian Mezzah of hummus, tahini, olives, salads, pitta, cracked wheat, aubergines, meatballs and soup was delicious. I soon realised that the Mezzah alone plus mouth watering Turkish style deserts of baklava, pancakes, halva, figs and sweet cinnamon scented rice puddings was my preferred choice so subsequently I omitted the hot dishes of lamb and chicken stews and shish kebabs.

We had an early start the next morning, so after a refreshing sleep and breakfast of fresh figs, yoghurt and coffee; we began our full day exploring Petra. Forget fashion and style. Wear walking shoes, wear a hat, carry water and apply sun protection. The two mile walk along the narrow corridor between the high rocks is a downward slope. There are fine horses, camels, pony and traps and donkeys for hire waiting at the entrance to Petra to taxi the visitor down but the walk isn't overly taxing. Along the way view sculptures in the rocks, Greek inscriptions and admire the light and shadow as the sun beams through the darkness of the narrow walkway. Then pause and hold your breath as the corridor opens up and the brilliant sunshine illuminates the grand treasury building of Petra carved from the rose-hued rock in the 1st century BC. You'll recognise the Corinthian columns from scenes in the film 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'. You are in a special place.

Continue walking along a further narrow passage past several tombs to see a Roman style theatre discovered as recently as 1975 by archaeologists with work still in progress. See Roman public baths, shops and monuments along the once colonnaded main street then make the steep climb to the monastery, worth the effort for the panoramic views of mountains and deserts. Although the climb was strenuous and in some places slippery on the well worn steps, donkeys were carrying twenty stone men up to the monastery - with the overweight men being held in place by young Jordanian males otherwise they would have fallen off the donkey. Shame they didn't let them!

After one full day travelling and a full day at Petra we were exhausted so were delighted the have the next day free to relax by the hotel pool restoring ourselves for our evening walk to Petra by Night with only flickering candles to light our way. Night falls quickly so by 6.30 pm we were following the candle-lit route back to the treasury in Petra to hear Bedouin music and folklore followed by dinner in a restaurant in the heart of the rose-red city. The stars have never seemed so bright and numerous as we picked our way through the uneven terrain along the narrow corridor. I do wonder about future health and safety because two of our group fell over in the darkness, hurting themselves, and one man got blisters as he was wearing borrowed trainers. Buy your own trainers. Take a torch. By 8.30 pm we were eating a Bedouin meal in the open air and being entertained by music and dancing, relieved to discover we weren't walking back uphill with full stomachs and instead had a hair-raising drive back on unmade roads to the Plaza and a deep and satisfying sleep.

The next morning we made a fond farewell to Petra, destination Amman, and driven along The Kings Highway, thus named since Biblical times, journeying through the Holy Land stopping to see Karak Castle built by the Crusaders in the 12th century to impose Christian rule on the Middle East after capturing Jerusalem in 1099. Karak Castle was rebuilt as a set based on the ruins as they are now for the film 'The Kingdom of Heaven'. We stood high up on the roof of castle keep offering us magnificent views of the deserts of Jordan and Israel. Such history!

Time for a quick lunch at the castle then another stop en route to Mabada, the city of mosaics, to a 6th century Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land then on to the most revered site in Jordan, Mount Nebo; a peaceful and holy place with views standing on the highest point over the Dead Sea, Jordan, Bethlehem and Jerusalem with a memorial to the prophet Moses and the alleged site of his death and burial place. Once again, we had been travelling, sightseeing, walking and eating since breakfast in Petra and were pleased to arrive as night fell in Amman, the capital of Jordan, at the Amra Crown Plaza for a two night stay beginning with a shower, a beer, another great meal and another welcome and comfortable bed.

No lie-in opportunity though, as we were up early again as to travel east from Amman to visit the eastern desert towards the Iraqi boarder, with Syria to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south and tour the Roman Desert Castles built as frontier posts for the eastern edge of their empire. A bit too close to the Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia borders for comfort but I simply put it out of my mind as we passed Jordanian trucks taking supplies to Iraq and Iraqi oil tankers delivering to Jordan, then onwards to the Roman Decapolis city of Jerash in the north for lunch and a tour. The ten Roman/Greek cities of the Decapolis, founded mainly by Alexander the Great around 323 BC, were models of urban planning for the whole Middle East. This Roman city has been beautifully preserved as it was buried in sand. We spent a happy three hours exploring the arches, gates, temples, colonnades and theatres seating over three thousand spectators. I'm still not sure why we sat in the auditorium watching the bagpipes played by Jordanian pipers performing traditional Scottish songs!

Do you know? We were tired! Are you surprised? We were driven back to Amman in the early evening for our first 'proper' drink with another couple in the comfortable hotel bar, then to eat a light supper and have a very early night. The night life in Amman is exciting and varied with clubs and restaurants and excellent shopping facilities - if you have the energy.

Do you know? Its day five and we haven't unpacked yet, just our washing gear and a daily rummage in our cases for clean T/shirts. So, a final breakfast in Amman then cases back on the coach for the last leg of discovering Jordan driving along the scenic Wadi Araba road to the Red Sea resort of Aqaba for two nights.

But first, a half day tour of the sprawling city of Amman which has spread from the original seven hills to over twenty, urbanising valuable agricultural land in the process. We concentrated on the downtown area, the oldest part of the city, standing on ancient ruins of The Temple of Hercules dating back to AD161 and admiring the panoramic views of this ancient and bustling city. Leaving Amman we drove south to the Dead Sea for a swim and then lunch. We've been to the Dead Sea before on the Israeli side so knew what to expect. It was hot. It was still. It was spooky. Thankfully we were the only two in our group who didn't bathe in the Dead Sea that day. Omar, our guide, warned us there were sharp stones on the edges of the water but unfortunately almost everyone cut their feet quite severely on the stones and required attention. Others had stinging eyes and sore skin from the high salt and mineral content. They all said they were pleased to have bathed in the Dead Sea, but never again!

We arrived in Aqaba just before nightfall. The rooms in the Radisson SAS were spacious and comfortable, with a balcony overlooking the hotel pool, the beach bar and directly over the private sandy beach and the deep blue waters of the Red Sea. Twelve years ago we had spent a few days in the Israeli resort of Eilat across the bay and seen the white buildings of Aqaba from there. Now I was overlooking Eilat and the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba from our Jordanian hotel balcony.

At this stage I was getting tired of some of the group complaining about the repeated buffets and how they longed for a bowl of soup and a crusty roll. Or a pizza! One woman told us she only ever ate pasta and cheese and couldn't find any Middle Eastern foods to suit her. She looked like a huge bowl of cooked pasta and a lump of white fatty cheese so I had to bite my lip and hold my tongue and make no comment.

Nevertheless, when a younger couple in the group invited us to join them for an evening meal of seafood specialities in the Aqaba Yatch Club we accepted. We were both missing our regular fish meals and our taste buds fancied a change. That evening we sat on the terrace of the Yatch Club overlooking the Red Sea and the classy yachts eating an Italian meal of Antipasto and Frito Misto, drinking very good Jordanian wines complete with fun company and all was well with the world.

Aqaba is a perfect beach resort for those seeking sun, sea and sand, and water sports in the spring, autumn and winter with the airport a ten minute drive from the resort. Forget the summer months as it is far too hot and oppressive. Select the best hotel you can afford overlooking the beach, although Jordan isn't an expensive holiday destination. Aqaba is also a good base for optional excursions to visit the sort of cultural places of interest I've described so far in my review. I've seen one week in a five star beach hotel in Aqaba advertised for around £350 which is cheap for winter sun and without the strain of a long haul flight.

But we hadn't finished discovering Jordan just yet. After a morning at leisure basking on the glorious beach and quietly reading we were to drive to Wadi Rum, one of the world's most colourful and unique landscapes of desert and mountain scenery, to watch the dramatic sunset followed by dinner in a Bedouin tent. Most of the scenes for the film 'Laurence of Arabia' were shot using these landscapes at Wadi Rum (We rented 'Laurence of Arabia' on our first weekend back home and sat picking out the landmarks of Wadi Rum as we spotted them)

Considering nothing had happened to alarm me during our week in Jordan, including high mountain desert passes and overhanging hairpin bends in the coach, and driving near other Middle Eastern borders, this next adventure almost had me in tears. When I saw the line of ancient Toyota pick up trucks and was told we were to ride six in a truck in the open back I blanched. I blanched even more when I saw there were no seat belts, the windscreen was shattered with no clear vision and our driver must have been all of a twelve year old Jordanian boy-racer. What a hair-raising ride through the desert that was. I almost missed the famous rock formation of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as I hung on for dear life. Bumping, tossing us around in the back, barely avoiding rocks, almost tipping over sending us flying out and going faster and faster as the manic drivers raced each other to the safety of the mountain where we were to sit and watch the sunset; I admit to unashamedly screaming like a baby both on the way there and on the way back - but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. We had our final candlelit dinner in Jordan in a huge Bedouin tent in the desert complete with more musicians and bonfires as the desert gets very cold at night; a fitting end to a wonderful travel experience. We left Aqaba and Jordan the next afternoon at four o'clock and arrived back at Gatwick at ten o'clock the same night, tired, happy and full of the wonders we had seen.

Buying gifts in Jordan was quite difficult. In most countries, such as China and Egypt, the local guides lead the visitor to shops encouraging them to spend money on things we don't really need to bring back home as gifts and mementos. This didn't happen in Jordan. We were there in Ramadan when all Muslims fast until sunset for one month. They must think we are strange always asking if we can stop for a mint tea or a coffee and what time are we stopping for lunch. The only places the visitor can drink alcohol is in the tourist hotel bars and the hotel room mini-bars. The Jordanian currency, the dinar, is the easiest ever to convert as one dinar equals about one pound sterling. English is widely spoken and we were made to feel welcome and treated with respect and warmth. We have been to Tunisia, Morocco, and Israel and twice to Egypt and now Jordan. I am sad to admit this may be the last time we visit the Middle East for a while and there is still so much of it to see and enjoy; hopefully in more peaceful times?