Cruising the Yangzi River

After many planes, trains and various forms of automobile, we decided it was time to slow the pace down for a few days and book ourselves onto a cruise up China’s longest and most beautiful river, the Yangzi.

 

For the first time in a while, arguably since we left the Himalayas in December, this was to be a trip where the destination was irrelevant compared to the journey itself. 

 

Despite a jittery start involving a bus driver refusing to drive the bus, an occupational hazard some might suggest, we were eventually transported from Yichang to Maoping Port, home of the immense Three Gorges Dam, where we boarded our new home for the coming three nights. 

 

The word cruise may conjure up scenes of opulence, we were however on a bog standard Chinese tourist boat. Our “luxury” cabin, in estate agents’ parlance, was compact and bijoux, comprising of two single beds, a desk and a shower over a poorly plumbed toilet. But we soon settled down as the ship set sail westward up the vast river.

 

We were, unsurprisingly, the only Westerners on board and, for some of our fellow passengers at least, we were as much of an attraction as the Three Gorges themselves. I say we, but of course I mean the Boys who have been the subject  matter of more photos with strangers than we’ve managed to capture of them. I had hoped quietly that the novelty of their presence would wear off after day one. Alas their appeal proved timeless, to the point where our cohorts were still mega-pixelating their way into our cabin (uninvited, but still welcome) on the final evening. Some were still perplexed, if not bemused, at Tomas’s attire, or lack thereof. Yes, despite the cooler weather in China he still insists on being underdressed for every occasion. 

  

Apart from one young boy the average age of our fellow passenger was somewhere in the mid sixties. The men smoked, drank and played cards whilst the women sat around in small groups setting the world to rights. Everyone was friendly enough but our lack of Mandarin did exclude us somewhat from life onboard. 

 

As we sailed our merry way up the Yangzi, we enjoyed the scenery and the occasional opportunity to stretch our legs on shore visits. These being rarer than we’d anticipated as the itinerary we were sold was entirely different to that of the boat. I’d wax lyrical about the temples we visited if only the English translations about them had made any sense. Nevertheless Sam and I enjoyed the architecture whilst the boys were more interested in perusing the souvenir stalls.

 

Happily we did at least get to see the gorges. The most imposing of which were the Qutang Gorge and the Wu Gorge. So impressive is the former that the Chinese have even featured it on their ¥10 bill. A cheesy photo opportunity if ever there was one! 

  

Dining on the boat was a eclectic mix of the familiar: fruit, various Chinese dishes and the occasional peanut butter sandwich; to the less familiar (and slightly peculiar): sausage meat with sweetcorn and fish scented boiled eggs. The latter ended up being binned on the grounds that they were insanely disgusting.

 

On the final night, with the Boys sound asleep and Sam continuing her recent winning streak at Scrabble, we docked in our final port, Chongqing. A dazzling skyline by night, unfortunately dismal by day, when we finally disembarked. 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

China

Due to the visa restrictions we didn’t have a whole lot of time for our China explorations. Now that we are out the other side it is safe to say we packed a lot into a short time.

 

On the whole we found China a really easy place to travel, despite the obvious language difficulties. There are super efficient trains, a great choice of hostels and Chinese curiosity about the children was unobtrusive (apart from one time an entire family invaded our hostel room to gawp).

  

Our first tick on the places-to-see-in-China list was the Forbidden City in Beijing. The palace’s buildings are imposing and beautiful. One can not help but imagine the fear and respect they would have commanded back when they were not surrounded by skyscrapers. 

 

Our visit to the Great Wall at Mùtiányù was fun if surreal. Surreal in part because it is such an iconic and familiar structure but more surreal because of the toboggan ride back down to the car park and the resident bi-lingual Mynah bird.

 

On the high speed train out of Beijing we hurtled past vast swathes of agricultural land with mile upon mile of fruit trees and poly tunnels interspersed with the odd town and/or power station. 

 

We spent a few chilled days in Pingyao exploring the ancient city walls and temples in between lots of lego time for the boys whilst we worked on the plan. The beauty of Pingyao is somewhat jaded by an ever-present layer of dust from the coal mines nearby. We particular enjoyed Ri Sheng Chang Old bank – the birthplace of modern banking. And Pingyao’s Newspaper museum which is a collection of front pages from around the world and we had fun playing guess the news story. 

  

The Army of Terracotta Warriors was next on the itinerary so we took a train to Xi’an. The three sites are housed in huge buildings and truly awe-inspiring. The statues are quite eerie, they so realistic one could imagine them coming to life any second.

  

We decided last minute to cut short our time in Xi’an so we could to fit in a Yangzi River cruise where we were able to be still for a couple of days as we sailed past the stunning scenery (read about it in Nick’s blog soon).

 

After noticing a dinosaur museum in our guide book it was just a matter of working out how we would fit in a detour to Zigong. The seven hours we subsequently spent on buses were well worth it and an added bonus were the beautiful landscapes we passed on the way, rolling hills and rice terraces. The dinosaur museum itself was a big hit with all of us, dinosaur models, skeletons, fossils and a real life excavation site! 

  

We enjoyed Chengdu not least for its most famous residents (pandas) and by far the biggest bed we’ve had so far! Nick took the opportunity of a DVD player in our room to introduce the boys to Star Wars. 

  

We took a day trip to Leshan to see the Big Buddha (it really is very big). And we loved wandering around People’s Park. Where we discovered a festival atmosphere with groups of couples ballroom dancing round sound systems. 

  

A storm in Shanghai gave us a long delay at Chengdu airport which although frustrating saved us the cost of a night’s accommodation. The weather system hung around and we had a wet and windy stay in Shanghai, exploring the city clad in down and goretex. 

 

Highlights include: a great day exploring the vast Science & Technology museum, seeing the cityscape lit up at night from the 87th floor of the Jinmào Tower, wandering round the French concession with its gorgeous Art Deco apartment blocks and the spectacular Acrobatic show we saw on our last night in China. 

 

Food references littered my posts from India but my taste buds were not set alight in China. We tried lots of street food and local delicacies; Peking duck and xiaolongbao were our favourites but I definitely didn’t fall in love with Chinese cuisine. 

   

The boys enjoyed the food more than us. They couldn’t get enough noodles and dumplings. And at Dōnghuámén Night Market they even tried snake and scorpion. G should have been on commission from the stall drumming up quite a bit of business with his proclamation that the scorpion was delicious!

 

We enjoyed China but we weren’t blown away. We didn’t experience the great highs and lows of our travels in India and Nepal. Where getting a train was an adventure in itself. With everything so easy the journey was, dare I say it, a little dull. Maybe we just didn’t have the time to appreciate it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hong Kong (or how to blow the budget)

Our flight from Calcutta was at 12.40am (aka ridiculous o’clock when travelling with children). And in keeping with the chaos of the city the journey to the airport was rather, well, chaotic. A tram had broken down in the middle of a crossroad causing major gridlock. Happily we had left plenty of time so enjoyed the drama without the worry of a missed flight.

 

Check in was also eventful. Our first experience of Air Asia’s dubious fine print and a hefty pay out for onward baggage transfer. Also the algorithm’s of the booking system are idiotic as 3 year old T was allocated a seat on his own. The journey itself was fine and we even managed to (finally) purchase a Lonely Planet for China.


Arrival in Hong Kong was like a dream. So clean, so efficient and so easy. We were certainly dazzled by the bright lights and after checking into our teeny room we made a bee-line for the familiarity of M&S food hall. 

Our guesthouse was in the backpacker destination of Chunking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui. An old tenement block packed with ‘budget’ lodgings. Accommodation in Hong Kong is notoriously expensive and you really don’t get much bang for your buck. Whereas a double room had always been ample for the four of us in India the double bed we were presented with was akin to a large single in a broom cupboard so we shelled out for a (not much) bigger ‘family’ room complete with shower over toilet. But it was comfortable and oh so clean.

 

After five months on the road most of our clothes were falling apart. We were due some serious retail therapy and that is something Hong Kong dishes out in (Gucci emblazoned) bucket loads. We wandered round the many shining shopping malls in open-mouthed wonderment. And we spent. New outfits. New lego. New shoes for the boys. We were the definition of shop ’til you drop. 

We managed to shake free of the consumer trance we were under and venture past the bright lights and shopping malls to see what else Hong Kong had on offer. We visited the Tian Tan Buddha (tallest seated bronze Buddha in the world) and Po Lin monastery at Ngong Ping on Lan Tau  Island. It was a steep climb up to the ‘big Buddha’ and sadly low cloud blocked the apparently stunning views but it was impressive nonetheless.


The weather was kinder to us when we rode the MTR out to the New Territories to follow the Peng Shan Heritage Trail. Where we had a glimpse of pre-colonial Hong Hong with fascinating ancestral halls and walled villages.


The kids enjoyed sampling Hong Kong’s many playgrounds and we enjoyed sitting back watching them play, safe in the knowledge there wouldn’t be a gaping rusty hole in the slide. They loved Disneyland and Ocean Park. I was less enamoured by the latter finding the layout hard to navigate but the aquarium was spectacular.


Temple street night market was a real highlight. We really enjoyed perusing all the wares on offer albeit whilst shielding the boys from some of the more adult stalls. There was a great atmosphere and the fresh seafood (straight from a bucket on the pavement) was delicious.


Hong Kong had us; hook, line and sinker. Our week there flew by in a blur of socialising and fine dining. We loved the ease of the metro and the fun of the Star Ferry. We ate some amazing pan Asian food. We rekindled friendships we’d made long ago and far away with people who now call Hong Kong home. And even had childcare for a night out on the town. 


It was a great place to recharge the batteries (and empty the wallet). And we consumed enough wine and cheese to fortify us through the next chapter of our adventure. Watch out China, the Johnsons are coming.