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20/08/2013

Gorging ourselves on a cruise along the Yangtze II

The river bustles and ancient meets modern as tiny sampans bob in the muddy brown wake of enormous coal barges and freighters. Gilded temples and pagodas rise majestically over industrial wharfs while, high above in the sheer rock face of the gorge, ancient coffins are suspended in caves, their residents undisturbed for centuries.

Rural china is very poor, and Viking River Cruises for Yantze River tour sponsors a school at Yueyang where the enthusiasm of the children was infectious. Their song-and-dance show brought tears to the eyes and their appetite for learning might ensure they have a better life than their parents. It takes a day to pass through the gorges, at times only about 165ft wide, while wooded buttresses of granite tower above, waterfalls cascade down and wild monkeys scamper among the trees.

The controversial Three Gorges Dam (the world's largest) is a symbol of Chinese pride and power. As well as enormous hydro-electric output, it increases shipping capacity and protects villages downstream from the flooding that has claimed millions of lives since time immemorial.

But more than a million people were compulsorily moved from their homes, hundreds of towns, villages and historic sites flooded and communities destroyed for its construction. Still, we were tourists, there not to judge but to marvel at an amazing feat of engineering in an area of awe-inspiring natural beauty.

We had settled into life on board, enjoying the tranquillity and excellent cuisine. The Crew Cabaret on our last evening was unexpectedly enchanting, with mechanics and stewards displaying dazzling skills as dancers, singers and acrobats. Somewhat reluctantly, we left at Chonqing, picking our way along the jetty past another world where people were ekeing a living selling a few vegetables, postcards or souvenirs.

We flew to Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Warriors and giant pandas and starting point for Silk Road tours. The latter would melt the hardest heart and I defy anyone not to experience a childlike delight at their munching on bamboo. In stark contrast, the warriors and horsemen, a mere fraction of whom have been uncovered to date, genuinely inspire awe. Despite having seen 120 on display at the British Museum years ago, I was unprepared for the sheer majesty and scale of the ancient burial site where, in 210 BC, the first Emperor Quin Shi Huang had 8,000 clay soldiers, larger than life-size, buried with him to protect him in the afterlife. One can only hope, after all that effort, it worked.

Last stop the capital Beijing. The Great Wall which should not be missed for your last minute China travel deals is a well trodden tourist path but a short stride along leaves 90 per cent of visitors behind and the views are breathtaking.

The infamous Tiananmen Square, which can hold up to 600,000 people, is home to Mao's Mausoleum. The terrible events of 1989, when possibly 3,000 protesters were killed, seemed a distant memory as we wended our way across to the Forbidden City.

The world's largest surviving palace, for almost 500 years the home of emperors, is now the Palace Museum where you could lose yourself for hours. As you wander among the courtyards, the roofs entrance the eye with their green and yellow glazed tiles and statuettes of dragons.

After an ample lunch (handling chopsticks like natives), we took a short ferry trip across the lake at the Summer Palace, a masterpiece of Chinese landscape design where the pavilions, halls, palaces and temples blend harmoniously with the natural hills and open water in an enchanting aesthetic experience.

Rarely, if ever, have I enjoyed such a culturally rich and historically interesting trip for my top 10 China tours. We were absorbed and charmed by the genuine warmth of welcome and the eagerness of our hosts to share their history and hopes for an even greater future.

China is rapidly changing and my regret is that this was only my first visit and not a return to compare with 20 years ago. I'll be back.

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