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20/08/2013

Gorging ourselves on a cruise along the Yangtze I


Watching my husband Neil construct a dry-stone wall around our vegetable garden reminded me I had never set foot on the Great Wall Of China. Action was needed and must for China tour deals. And so we arrived in Shanghai for two nights, before flying to Wuhan to join Viking Century Sun on a cruise up the mighty Yangtze river.

Dishevelled after a 13-hour flight, we arrived at our hotel to find the entrance locked. Some mistake, surely? We were a group of ten, plus escort, and this was a five-star hotel. It transpired that Hillary Clinton was about to leave, so all entrances bar one were locked.

There are 4,000 skyscrapers in Shanghai where you can see the modern elements for your top China tours, and World Expo was in full swing. The city was fizzing and the night skyline breathtaking. Our room overlooked the Bund, the elegant walk along the HuangPu river, whence we scampered for an early-evening stroll. I was amused to see a sign: 'Toilets: Walk backwards and then advance straight.' So that was simple. Later in the trip I spotted another: 'Grass smiling, please let it alone.'

We battled jet-lag to dine on fried frog in hot chilli oil, followed by braised live abalone with oyster sauce and duck tongue with stuffed lotus root, washed down with osmanthus tea, and finished off (well, I was) with wuliangye, a fearsome liquor.

We were in the care of Jessie, our China tour guide for the whole trip. She spoke impeccable English and always had a twinkle in her eye. The Duke of Edinburgh may have opined on the ocular features of the chinese but, she told us, they retaliate in kind by calling us 'Big Nose'.

We explored the narrow lanes of Old Shanghai, the five-acre Yuyan gardens, where Ming emperors had dallied with their concubines, and the Shanghai Museum's treasure trove of ancient Chinese art and culture. Heads spinning with dynastic information about the Shang, the Zhou, the Xin and the tang, not to mention the Ming and the Qing, that evening we were dazzled by a gravity-defying acrobatic display. Tired, but with the charms of Shanghai far from exhausted, we welcomed the prospect of five days aboard ship to recuperate and enjoy the towering scenery.

Flowing from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea, the Yangtze is a natural division between north and south. Life on board is relaxed with plenty to occupy the time and mind. Lessons in Chinese enabled us, at least, to greet our hosts with 'hello' and 'thank you', but a language where the same word pronounced almost imperceptibly differently means either 'motherin-law' or 'pig' is fraught with danger for the unwary.

The prices of the resident Chinese tailor were irresistible and, with admirable restraint, i opted for just two glorious silk jackets and one for neil, run up in hours for less than the cost of one back home

Chinese history is totally absorbing and daily talks enlightened us. We passed under the Wuhan Bridge where in 1966 chairman Mao, then in his 70s, famously swam across the Yangtze for our Yantze River tour. China was then in the throes of economic catastrophe and widespread famine when Mao theatrically signalled that he was in robust health and well able to withstand his critics.

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