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 China - November 2011

Day 1 Wednesday November 2nd/  Day 2 Thursday November 3rd

I wouldn't say flying from Heathrow is a delight but it is endurable and seems to be much better than some airports I could name. The first leg of our flight to China was as stress free as it's possible to get in cattle class (economy). Leaving plenty of time to get to the airport is one of the secrets. On arrival we found no queues and were able to drop off our bags immediately, having already printed off our seats and boarding passes from the Internet. The internet has helped greatly with this. The only problem soon booking in and printing things out on the internet will become the norm which will probably make booking in at the airport in a kind of old fashioned way the quickest method!

We even got straight through the security checks as well and plenty of time to have a coffee before boarding our flight for Dubai which took around seven hours. The only two minor drawbacks were leaving half an hour late and arriving an hour late after being stacked up going into Dubai and having to circle for 40 minutes or so. The plane was spacious and new and the entertainment available the best I have come across on a flight. So take a bow Emirates Airlines  (even if they do sponsor Arsenal Football Club). There were so many films to watch and music to listen to. I just wish we had a straight through flight. Still listened to one of my favourite albums - In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson and watched the excellent Toy Story 3 and the old James Stewart film Mr Smith goes to Washington.

Arriving late didn't affect us as we had well over two hours before the flight again on Emirates from Dubai to Shanghai - this time over seven hours and nowhere near as comfortable. The plane was more claustrophobic, it was cramped, the entertainment was nowhere near as good and it was a night flight so tried without much success to get some sleep. Overall, however, for a couple of long haul flights it was all quite acceptable.

The decent experience continued. Most of the people on the flight were Chinese which meant we didn't have to queue up for long to get through customs and locate our baggage and meet the representative from Viking River Cruises.

Just six of us on the van to go to the Westin Hotel in the centre of Shanghai. The journey took the best part of an hour with traffic building as we approached the city centre. First impressions of China were simply that the road network could have been practically anywhere in the world. Surprised to find that almost all of the road signs were in English as well as Chinese.

The Westin Bund Centre Hotel is a five star establishment just off the Bund or waterfront. There we met our guide Francis who despite his name is Chinese. We were soon to find that all the Chinese guides adopt English names to make it easier for the tourist industry and just one small example of how China is opening up to the west. Apparently Francis' real name is something along the lines of Yang Lee Yung (apologies if I have got this wrong).

Our room was clean and comfortable without being outstanding although it did have separate shower, bathroom and loo. You know it's a five star establishment when you find a separate wall mounted phone in the loo. "Loo to Bedroom are you receiving me. Could I have some more air freshener please?" So after a bit of basic unpacking we decided to fight the jet lag by going to bed at the usual time - that is staying awake until after 10pm, which of course at home would be 2pm. So we walked to the Bund.

There was a lovely feel about the place which reminded us of London's South Bank. Lots of people were strolling around and taking photographs. Shanghai looked outstanding in the dark with classic old buildings blending in with the new skyscrapers but not giving a claustrophobic feel of such places  as Sydney and Vancouver where the buildings seem to pen you in.

So we walked some distance and then went on hunt of an evening meal. Similarities with our trip to Wellington in New Zealand here as we just couldn't find anywhere suitable and had virtually reached the hotel when we discovered a small local restaurant where we managed to order despite the young waiters being unable to understand any English and of course our Chinese less than fluent. They didn't even understand the universal word "Beer."

Managed to order two dishes, two lots of rice, some tea and a very large bottle of beer which unbelievably came to about 12. Later we found somebody in out hotel had paid 18 for a sandwich and cup of coffee.

We returned to our hotel and went to bed.

Day 3 Friday November 4th

In some ways news from home dominated today in the nicest possible way. Woke up at 4 am and couldn't get back to sleep. Got a text message from a friend in Hethersett to say the village has got the Olympic torch. What a coup for the village. Next year is going to be huge on the sporting front. I feel we have achieved so much in such a short period of time*

Today involved a tour of a garden and old Shanghai. Shanghai is a hugely interesting place and somewhere we would certainly like to spend more time and certainly more than the couple of days we have here. Noticed in the lift in the hotel that they were playing music by the Decemberists. Another illustration of how Westernised China has become - any other Decemberist fans out there? 

Breakfast was excellent with so much to eat from fruit to meat to cooked food and pastries with coffee. Spent quite some time stocking up on food for the day. First stop was the Yuyuan gardens located in the old town which was awash with tourists. There were apparently seven groups from Viking River Cruises and of course they all turned up at the same time. The gardens consisted of five acres of winding paths and buildings with rockeries, caves, grottoes etc. Quite picturesque and obviously very different from an English garden. We then had some free time to explore the old town. Sadly our meeting place was a Starbucks restaurant which is a sad endictment that the Chinese feel this is now a point of reference for Westerners. It would have been better to have met outside the Soo Ho Dumpling shop!!!

Then the day turned a little touristy to say the least with visits to a silk rug factory - something I certainly could have done without. Okay they are traditional Chinese crafts but there is the distinct impression that it is all carefully orchestrated for the tourist industry with strategically placed shops at the end of the tour. The rug process was the same as in Turkey and it's all geared up to tourism with the coaches rolling in.

We drove back to the Bund and had a walk along part of it, seeing the places we had already visited the previous evening. Then onto a museum which was of average interest - mainly artefacts from Chinese art. One sign said "no food, no drink, no fountain pens," It was okay as the only pens we had were Biros (is that what they are still called?" Back to the coach and back to the hotel for a rest. Got changed and drove to another hotel for another Chinese meal and then an acrobat show. Very enjoyable although it certainly wasn't Cirque Du Soleil. Back to the hotel and we decided to go in search of a cup of coffee which proved impossible as the only coffee shop we found was shut and our hotel wanted seven pounds a cup and we really aren't that stupid. After quite a long walk we returned to our hotel and had free coffee in our room!!!!

Day 4 Saturday November 5th

So just how many towns throughout the world are named the Venice of something or other? the fact is there is only one Venice and it really is nothing like any other place. So today we had a visit to Suzhou pronounced Sue Jo. It was down as the Venice of the East. it wasn't. a rather ordinary looking town of several million people. In fact the population of virtually every town visited is mind boggling. In Suzhou we had to walk through a Warren of muddy roads to get to the Garden of the Master of the Nets. This was quite small and quite picturesque and full of buildings - more like a private house than anything else.. Apparently it's one if nine gardens in the city that together compose a UNESCO World Heritage site. Again lunch was in a local restaurant -they are beginning to all merge into one now. Then it was a tour of a silk spinning factory and a stunningly dull hour looking round another tourist shop all carefully designed to get the tourist dollar. American dollars are very popular in China and can be used as currency virtually anywhere, whereas our British Sterling was pretty useless.

Once back on the coach we had a three hour drive to Nanjing to get onto our boat The Viking Emerald.. The dock could only be described as a piece of waste mud where it seemed that fly tipping was compulsory rather than outlawed. There were old bits of furniture everywhere. From a Chinese point of view this was a public relations disaster. The walkway to the boat left much to be desired and the whole episode left a very nasty impression.

The boat, however, was excellent, spacious and comfortable and the restaurant provided a good western meal which made a change from Chinese. We sat at a table with people from our own group. Afterwards sat in one of the bars before going to bed as the boat was sailing down the river.

Day 5 Sunday November 6th

to be continued

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