We may not be able to fly away anywhere soon, but we still have our memories. And one of mine goes back to 10 years ago when, as our 25th wedding anniversary approached, Trish wondered where we could go on a special holiday.
On her bucket list were a safari trip to Kenya, or maybe a long cruise. I have an aversion to wild animals and reptiles, plus landing myself in the wilds. Call me unadventurous – and people do – but toiling in the Kenyan heat wasn’t very appealing. She hinted at South Africa, and again I mentioned the heat, high crime, etc – I know, I know; I’m terrible.
While I was no wild fan of cruises it sounded like a possibility, but while I was going through the Travel Department’s website I came across some China excursions. I loved the idea of visiting Shanghai and Beijing. So did Trish, but then I discovered they had a 12-day excursion to both cities with a five-day cruise to South Korea and Japan thrown in. Woohoo. Trish was delighted, more so as this was a guided tour, with hotels, food, excursions (except on the cruise) included in the price.
We paid the deposit and looked forward to our trip which coincided with our anniversary. Problem number one was when the trip was postponed until May. Then the Travel Department rang us with another problem. The Chinese Embassy insisted on me presenting myself at their visa section. I knew why: I was Chief Sub-Editor in the Irish Examiner’s Editorial Department so they were a little suspicious of why I was going on the trip. Hmm. There was nothing for it but to drive to Dublin with Trish and persuade them this was a holiday, not a fact-finding mission to China.
We were ushered into the offices of a young official who was quickly disarmed when we gave our reason for travel. Once he was assured that I wasn’t planning to write about our holiday we were given a cup of Chinese tea and the visa was approved. Hooray.
Our party of over 30 departed from Dublin to Frankfurt and onwards to Beijing. We were a mixed bag of Irish tourists. Some were veterans of Travel Department trips (this, as we discovered on later trips, is not unusual), from taxi drivers to businessmen. They proved excellent company in the weeks ahead.
Arriving in Shanghai what hit me was the gleaming new airport, and the sophisticated technology employed at security. Our guide, a lovely young guy who was super at his job and had a great sense of humour, was there to meet us with a coach, and we hurried off to our hotel, the rather Irish title of the beautiful Kerry Shangri-La!
One of the highlights in Shanghai was a night cruise of the river with the beautifully lit skyscrapers providing a gorgeous backdrop. With its half-European look, the city would prove an appealing contrast to the austere look of Beijing. We took a trip up to the zillionth floor in one building and were treated to a beautiful vista. It was quite obvious that China’s infrastructure was fast catching up with the West.
We were taken to some special Chinese restaurants, but few of us relished the food. It was not quite what I expected based on what we normally got in our Chinese restaurants at home. Still, we could roam around the streets of Shanghai freely if we so wished. I was surprised at how easy it was to call my son and how good the reception was. However, accessing the Internet was difficult, and search for my usual news sites like the Examiner, Irish Times or the Guardian impossible.
The cruise was a five-day jaunt in not particularly great weather. I doubt we saw the sun one day. The ship itself was fine, with about 1,000 Chinese tourists and a few hundred Irish (there were two Irish parties with the Travel Department), some British and Australians. We soon discovered the difference. The Westerners congregated in the bar while the Chinese would queue early for the casino doors to open.
We arrived in the Japanese city of Fukuoka and some of us took an excursion to the city to include a trip to a Japanese Castle. The latter proved a huge disappointment. It consisted of a small wall. And that was it. Try selling that as an attraction to Irish tourists used to seeing real castles. And Fukuoka was a well off city with extravagant prices. We complained when we got back to the liner and were partially refunded.
Thankfully, the food aboard was superb. But the queuing to go onshore was a real pain. We needed visas to go ashore and there were queues to get off and onboard. It was real tiresome. Still, a trip to Busan was much better. It was bustling, the people were very friendly, and the prices a lot easier on the pocket.
Beijing was a dull looking city. Of course it had some great attractions, such as the Forbidden City where the Imperial family once lived – an amazing experience as we explored with our guide leading the way with an Irish flag! – and Tiananmen Square, scene of the massacre of protestors in 1989, but also some of the major buildings constructed for the Beijing Olympics two years earlier.
Other highlights included trips to the Summer Palace, a village built on water where the inhabitants treated us with suspicion, and the Great Wall. We also visited jade and silk factories. Impressive but too expensive for us. I think it was in Beijing that we managed to find a knock-off market where designer goods – or possibly counterfeit versions – were sold over several floors. The bargains were amazing and the quality was very good.
Of course the Irish being who we are, we also found ourselves in an Irish bar in Beijing where we had a merry time. Shanghai was even better, and this time a fleet of cars took about 16 of us to the bar. Fun times indeed.
Finally, we boarded the Chinese equivalent of a bullet train, reaching speeds of 300kmh as we zoomed from Shanghai city centre to the airport and the long journey home. A holiday of a lifetime without doubt.