Chinese odyssey: a country of extremes

From chaotic city life to the serenity of the Yangtze

From one extreme to another, Hollie-Rae Brader enjoys the serenity of the Yangtze and the chaos of sprawling Beijing and Shanghai

 

All I can hear are the slight ripples of water as the Yangzi Explorer eases its way upstream.

I’m sitting on the top deck at close to midnight on the third and final nightof our sailing trip along China’s mighty Yangtze. There’s almost total silence as only a handful of people have joined me to simply stare up at the plethora of bright shining stars in the sky. There are too many to even attempt to count.

I’d not expected such a sight, having heard all the criticisms about pollution, and especially as my Chinese odyssey had begun in Beijing, where the stars are hidden by a grey fog most evenings. The two places are worlds apart.

As I lay back on the comfy sun loungers, I’m wrapped up in the tranquillity and peacefulness of my surroundings. All that changes in a heartbeat. “Did you see that?” shouts one person as they jump up from their slumber. Another says: “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Our faces beam with excitement as we turn to check we’ve all spotted the same thing – a dazzling shooting star.

I stay up on deck for another hour or so, hoping to see a second one, but also because the warm night breeze feels like a blanket around me.

I’d boarded Sanctuary Retreats’ Yangzi Explorer in Chongqing two days earlier.

Despite it being a major city, I must admit I had never heard of it. I arrived expecting a riverside town but found a mini Shanghai. Chongqing, known as the mountaincity or the bridge city (it has 28 of them), might not be well known in the UK, but its bright neon lights and sky-high buildings certainly put on a show for the tourists who start their Yangtze adventure here.

 

HIGH STANDARDS

The 136-passenger ship, travelling between Chongqing and Yinchang, is without doubt the most luxurious on the Yangtze. It has 62 cabins (38 deluxe, 20 suites and four speciality suites), all of which were refurbished earlier this year to reflect either contemporary Chinese design or more colonial styles. Those who have sailed on European rivers will be impressed by the size of the cabins and suites.

But it was the spa that took me most by surprise – it’s enormous. Most river vessels barely have a treatment room to speakof, but the Yangzi Explorer boasts a fully dedicated wellness area with six treatment rooms and an extensive treatment list.

The wellness offering continues on the top deck where daily tai chi lessons are held as the sun rises. The classes are short – usually only about 15 minutes – but it’s a relaxing way to start the day, particularly given the hazy, and almost dewy, looking skies surrounding you.

The impressive wellness programmeis complemented by a series of onboard activities that teach guests about Chinese culture. My favourites were the cookery and calligraphy lessons, but other options include tea ceremonies and classes in Chinese medicine.

Surprisingly, the ship is well equipped for children and families – often a rarer sight on river ships than even a shooting star. In July and August each year, staff organise kite-making sessions, mask painting, origami classes, scavenger hunts and pyjama parties for young travellers. The one downside is that the children’s play area is located directly above some of the spa treatment rooms and it can be a little noisy when you’re trying to zen out.

When it comes to scenic cruising favourites, the Yangtze is high on the list. The views of the mountainous areas between Yinchang and Chongqing are unbelievable and truly impressive. I could happily have sat on deck all day listening to staff explaining the history of the magnificent vistas. Their passion for their country really shone through. The excursion offering was a little mixed. In Fengdu, our first stop, we visited a local market anda new town where those relocated following flooding have starteda new life.

Day two saw the best excursion of the trip, travelling on the Shennong Stream on a sampan– a traditional longboat rowed by Tujia boatmen. Our Tujia guide, who went by the English name Debbie, sang traditional folk songs whilewe made our way up and down the stream. The final excursion took us to Three Gorges Dam, the largest power station in the world.

The Yangzi Explorer cruise is packaged up by a number of operators, including sister brand Abercrombie & Kent. My trip with A&K included a pre-cruise stay in Beijing and a visit to Shanghai after disembarking the vessel.

 

HISTORIC BEIJING

The capital is almost like a big sister to the modern, glitzy and more westernised Shanghai but the two are poles apart. Visiting Beijing first is recommended and doing so allowed me to build up my knowledge of the country’s past – with history and heritage deeply ingrained in the city and its 21.5-million population.

A visit to the Forbidden City,the imperial palace from the Ming dynasty, is an absolute must. This sprawling historic site consists of 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and more than 8,000 rooms. Make sure you arrive early as there is a cap on the number of visitors permitted each day, and domestic tourists descend en masse.

Neighbouring Tiananmen Square has a somewhat chequered history, having been the site where hundreds of civilians were shot dead during student-led protests and demonstrations in 1989. Many locals, including guides, still feel uncomfortable talking about this.

Tourists visiting Beijing should plan their time wisely because what may look like a 10-minute walk on a map is more likely to take an hour – especially when you factor in the poor air quality, which can leave you feeling lethargic.

 

MODERN SHANGHAI

More modern and diverse is sparkling and space-age Shanghai, where I ended my Chinese love affair. This city is a mix of old and new, with the former slowly disappearing before locals’ eyes.

The newer PuDong area is just 20 years old but boasts some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, while thePu Xi area, which comprises The Bund waterfront, the French Concession and the English Concession, features remnants of days gone by. WithinPu Xi’s Old Town area you’ll still find narrow alleyways packed with rickety traditional houses and families living in very confined spaces. This side of the city is changing rapidly as the government looks to knock down these rundown homes and rehouse locals in high-rise buildings.

A visit to the French Concession – known as the Paris of the Orient – is worthwhile. It’s full of cool cafes and museums; I explored it on a motorbike and sidecar tour of the area.

But the first port of call for most visitors to Shanghai is The Bund promenade, which has English-style historic landmarks, inspired by the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool, on one side and vertigo-inducing skyscrapers across the Huangpu River.

Take the Shanghai Bund Sightseeing Tunnel to get between the two areas– it’s a fun way to travel, as the short underground train journey comes with a technicolour light show!

I had not been on the hunt for another shooting star, but the bright lights of the skyscrapers – best seen from The Bund – provided a mesmerising sight.