Everything I had learned about this intriguing, mysterious, diverse and giant country of China was generally prefaced with superlatives: “The tallest,” “the oldest,” “the most famous” or “the only.”
I wanted to experience China, but I didn’t want to experience the country — as a first-time visitor — on a land tour. I wanted to see the best of the best — but from the comfort and convenience of a cruise ship.
Having been fortunate to cruise for the past 25 years — for both work and leisure — I read that Crystal Cruises had a 13-day Pearls of China itinerary (April 9-22) that offered an in-depth view of the country’s major cities — Hong Kong, Xiamen, Shanghai, Dalian and Beijing.
We would sail the coastline from Hong Kong north to Beijing and also cruise the Strait of Taiwan, East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. Together with my friend Cynthia McEldowney, we were headed to China, both as first-time visitors.
We started in Hong Kong. With a private guide arranged through the Hong Kong Tourism Board, we began our tour immediately upon arrival in the city on April 8.
Even though we had endured almost 21 hours of travel — plus a time difference of 13 hours, we still forged ahead and we wanted to walk.
Following a marvelous dim sum lunch, we set our priorities of must sees — Victoria Peak, via tram, (definitely the No. 1 attraction, not to be missed), Hollywood Road, the Financial District, Man Mo Monastery, Stanley Street Market (open evenings only) and, of course, riding the Star Ferry for a short ride from Kowloon (where our hotel was) to Hong Kong Island.
Obviously, our objective was to get a taste of all this city had to offer and to see as much as we could on foot.
And we did. Truly, Hong Kong is where East meets West, and the result is electric.
The next afternoon, we boarded the Crystal Symphony, docked at nearby Ocean Terminal. We would overnight on the ship this evening and would sail the next afternoon for Xiamen.
Known as the “Pearl on the Sea,” Xiamen — a gorgeous tropical seaport — also is the second largest city in China with a population of 3.5 million.
Other than Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, I don’t recall ever seeing so much green space with a kaleidoscope of color at every corner.
The traffic was beyond indescribable. No sooner had we boarded our motor coach for a 4-hour tour, and we knew we were in for a wild ride. Our driver was fearless.
The most interesting stop was the Chinese Overseas Museum. We learned that thousands of Chinese immigrants made a major contribution to the United States’ transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s to help build the tracks across 1,800 miles of arid plains and deserts and through the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.
Our next port was Shanghai. We were docked for three days and two nights in this intriguing city, the largest city in the world in land mass, with a population of almost 24 million.
As Cynthia and I stood on our balcony, it was hard to grasp the magnificent vista before us: a skyline backdrop that seemingly went on forever, combined with bustling river traffic below us.
We chose the all-day Highlights of Shanghai tour that included The Bund, Shanghai’s Old Town the 16th century Yuyuan Garden and a stop at the Jade Buddha Temple, where we saw two very rare white Burmese jade statues of Buddha.
Our last port of call before disembarking in Beijing was Dalian. Showcasing beautiful beaches, parks and a slower pace of life, Dalian was also a coveted prize for conquerors because it was an ice-free port.
Tourism is an important industry in this lovely port city — as evident by the many college students welcoming us wearing welcome badges and accompanying us to translate our questions at the major shopping center, Friendship Shopping Center.
We disembarked at the port for Beijing on April 19. Following a 150-mile motor-coach journey from the cruise terminal to the city, we started our three-day, three-night land tour of this fascinating cultural and political center of China.
We toured the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, enjoyed a private dinner with entertainment just at The Hall of the People and took a rickshaw tour through the Hutongs (alleyways and narrow streets of Old Beijing.)
The Great Wall
Our last — and for Cynthia and me, our favorite — attraction: The Great Wall.
There are certain sections you can climb — and we climbed it! What a feat and what a way to end an amazing 17-day Asian Adventure in China.
The next afternoon, we boarded our nonstop flight on Air China for a 131⁄2-hour flight from Beijing to Houston and back home to Galveston.
Would I go back? Yes, but only on a cruise. For this destination — in my opinion — it’s the smartest and most enjoyable way to experience it.
And probably the most interesting observation of China was made by our Beijing guide when he told our group: “Whenever you — as Westerners — can’t define, understand, explain or make sense of something the Chinese have said or done — our response to you is this: “Well ... China is China.” And that essentially ended the discussion.
At a glance
- As first-time visitors we learned that for the most part, the government owns all land. There is one exception. A section of Old Beijing where property is still privately owned.
- Building continues at warp speed — skyscrapers are being built — or overbuilt — in each of the major cities we toured.
- Obtaining a driver’s license is by lottery. If you get a driver’s license, you can drive only on certain days, depending on license number.
- Manufacturing is the No. 1 industry — silk, agriculture (rice), porcelain production, tea and automobiles.
- 65 percent of the country’s population lives along the eastern coastline.
- This is a still-developing country in many ways — most apparent by their archaic public restrooms.
- Hong Kong’s currency is different from mainland China’s. Also, cars are driven on the left side of the road in Hong Kong, a carry-over from British rule, and on the right side in rest of the country.