Husband Wal and I were having dinner with friends Kathie and John Hewitt when the subject of ‘tours’ came up. Wal mentioned that he thought China was to be the next country he would like to to visit and Kathie (the artist) was in boots and all on the idea. I have to say that China was waaay down on my list of places to visit and John (as an accountant) was, to say the least, cautious about costs. However there was no way we could not go along with our enthusiastic spouses. Wal was onto the computer immediately and brought up the Tours Direct site and fired up the sales pitch. He followed this with a flood of information and books for us to read, while John investigated the credentials of Tours Direct ;-). Needless to say we were soon booked for an October tour with Mandy Page as our guide.
The group met up at Auckland airport and it was really interesting to see how many repeat Tours Direct travellers were in the group – all with favourable reports of previous adventures.
A short stop in Hong Kong – fabulous hotel, harbor tour, trip on the cable car. Wal’s first introduction to the art of Geo cache and then we were off to the mainland.
Mandy Page made this trip for me with her knowledge, insight, passion for history and culture, gentle sense of humour and truly caring personality. Wal and started the trip with some rather nasty health news on our minds and we needed the distraction to put the news aside and enjoy ourselves. I loved that she would offer a short walk before the day’s programme and we would explore back streets and peer through walls, find strange little monuments and vistas in the quiet morning before work and traffic generated noise and people.
I don’t want to do the whole trip diary but here are a few standout moments that made me say at the end – “I am coming back”. It is difficult to limit myself to a ‘moment’, as the memories came flooding back, even 6 years after the experience.
The art school of the university in Guilin was a delight, especially for The Artist. Wonderful floral, scenic paintings; elegant, simple; some of them from ages gone, some from the latest class of students.
The trip on the Li River to Yangshuo was peaceful and so very picturesque. It felt like being in a dream sequence on film, sailing by a backdrop of all those traditional Chinese bamboo, misty peaks paintings.
Yangshuo was touristy but cute. We visited the local ‘Boystown’ style academy to support the work of the local social workers with street kids. The rhythmical, flowing movements of Tai chi and then the vigorous Lion Dance with the help of male tourists was inspiring and we willingly added them to our end of trip list of beneficiaries to receive our combined charity contributions. This practice is typical of Tours Direct trips and is such a ‘feel good’ activity. The night time drama performance on the lake was incredible. Composed and choreographed by the guy that did the 2008 Beijing Olympic opening ceremony, it was a symphony of red sashes, rowed out in to the acres of lake by canoeists and plaited and intertwined to make patterns including the Chinese flag. The music was orchestral and of an international flavor so made for a very enjoyable interlude for the Europeans.
Another musical experience was the “Master of Nets Garden”. It was a drizzily night but the 5 pavilions presented a very attractive picture separated as they were by arched bridges and linked with garlands of lights. I never, ever thought I could appreciate Chinese opera or theatre, my ear was just not accustomed to the tones and cadence but I was won over by the skills of the performing musicians and singers as we experienced Chinese opera, singing, and various stringed instruments.
On our way to view the Terracotta Soldiers we detoured to ride bicycles on the Xian city wall. A few moments of silly competition that brought much laughter. Riding as the back seat driver on a tandem bike brought out creative insults and challenges.
The Soldiers were amazing to study and to wonder about – incredible variety with each face entirely individual. The sheer number and the extent of the excavation was mindblowing. It was impossible to conceive of the mind that first thought of and then developed the work. The execution and length of time spent on the work over generations and then the care taken with the rediscovery and preservation. As a native born New Zealander I am so aware of how young our country is when I am confronted with such cultural depth in other countries.
All through our trip, every example of construction we came across - whether temple; Great Wall; Ming Dynasty Statues; artworks; silk works; porcelain pieces or furniture; ancient or relatively new; – the artistry, engineering and scale was always breathtaking - right up to the amazing motorways in Bejing and the skyscrapers of Shanghai and down to the tiniest pieces in the Shanghai Museum.
In contrast we also wandered through a tiny village of Fuli where little old houses with their fronts open showed the ages and stages of the villagers. There was a shop, a place of manufacture with treadle sewing machines and others were just a place to sit under watchful photos of Mao and Lenin and watch the curious tourists go by. It felt like a moment frozen in time.
In Suzhou – the ‘Venice of China’ we were serenaded along canals by the lady gondoliers. Hard to imagine, but another slightly surreal moment and just one of the special extras that Tours Direct does so well. It was not something we had anticipated among the big, well known aspects of touring in China, but utterly charming and, because of the narrowness of the canals there was an intimacy which allowed us and the locals to enjoy each other’s’ delight.
I haven’t covered the BIG sites like the Great Wall and Bejing’s Forbidden City all of which I wondered at as you must when confronted with the history and size, and certainly can never really imagine until you are there :- but the moments that came to mind are much smaller and fleeting such as those I have mentioned and another like all the ‘older’ citizens enjoying their card games, dancing, band practice, reading, badminton and singing groups in the gardens of The Summer Palace in Bejing.
Sadly Wallace died from terminal cancer soon after this trip to China, he was a wonderful man and cherished husband. Liz has gone on to travel on other Tours Direct tours and her infectious enthusiasm for life and wine is always an asset.