Eas­ing into the East on a cruise in China

Day trips from Crys­tal Sym­pony an ef­fi­cient way for travel rook­ies to avoid has­sles

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - IRENE S. LEVINE

It can be daunt­ing for first-timers to visit China, given the chal­lenges posed by lan­guage, cul­ture, pop­u­la­tion den­sity and vast dis­tances be­tween ma­jor cities.

That’s why a cruise through this part of the world is a con­ve­nient, ef­fi­cient way for rook­ies to avoid many of these has­sles. Cruis­ers don’t have to worry about find­ing ho­tels or English-speak­ing guides, ar­rang­ing ground transporta­tion and other lo­gis­tics.

“What’s fas­ci­nat­ing about Asia is its com­plex­ity,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, edi­tor-in-chief of CruiseCrit­ic.com. “And that’s pre­cisely what makes it an ideal re­gion to sam­ple first by cruise, where you’re on board a ship with your own fa­mil­iar cul­ture.”

Last March, my hus­band and I took a 10-day cruise on the 900-pas­sen­ger Crys­tal Sym­phony from Hong Kong to Bei­jing, with ports of call in Xi­a­men, Shang­hai and Dalian, and a three-day land ex­ten­sion in Bei­jing. This itin­er­ary show­cased the trio of must-see cities — Hong Kong, Shang­hai and Bei­jing — al­low­ing us to ex­pe­ri­ence them in a way we wouldn’t have been ca­pa­ble of do­ing on our own, es­pe­cially within such a short time frame.

Hong Kong

Our cruise be­gan from a ter­mi­nal em­bed­ded in the cen­trally lo­cated Har­bour City mall. This lux­ury mega-re­tail com­plex with its three ho­tels, 450 stores and 50 food out­lets of­fered an ini­tial glimpse at how West­ern­ized China has be­come since Mao Ze­dong launched the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion in 1966. While this was my first time in China, my hus­band had vis­ited the coun­try as part of a med­i­cal del­e­ga­tion in the ’70s, when peo­ple uni­formly wore drab blue jack­ets, and bi­cy­cles greatly out­num­bered cars.

A flotilla of flat-bot­tomed sam­pans, junks with red sails and vin­tage fer­ries pa­raded past our ship on Victoria Har­bor. Sky­scrapers daz­zled along the shore dur­ing the nightly 13-minute light show syn­chro­nized to music.

The next morn­ing, we strolled around on our own, pur­sued by English-speak­ing hawk­ers who pro­filed us as tar­gets for cus­tom tai­lors. That af­ter­noon, we opted for one of Crys­tal Cruises’ myr­iad shore ex­cur­sions, this one ex­plor­ing daily life in Hong Kong.

The tour be­gan with a com­fort­able bus ride to Tin Hau Tem­ple, one of the city’s old­est. With more than 600 tem­ples — half of them Bud­dhist — Hong Kong has a rich spir­i­tual tra­di­tion. The re­stored 18th cen­tury tem­ple, still ac­tive with wor­ship­pers, was painted in char­ac­ter­is­tic yel­low, red and green with in­cense coils sus­pended from the ceil­ing.

Even in this cos­mopoli­tan city, many tra­di­tions en­dure. We passed streets with laun­dry dry­ing out­side win­dows of high­rise apart­ments and vis­ited a “wet mar­ket” with live an­i­mals, where tra­di­tion­al­ists shop twice daily for meat, seafood and veg­eta­bles. A crowded dou­bledecker tram in ser­vice since 1904, called a Ding Ning, trans­ported us to a neigh­bour­hood with tra­di­tional medicine shops and dis­plays of dried seafood prod­ucts.

Shang­hai

A small fish­ing vil­lage un­til 1842, Shang­hai be­came a com­mer­cial trade cen­tre thanks to its strate­gic lo­ca­tion on the Huangpu River, a branch of China’s long­est river, the Yangtze.

Like Hong Kong, Shang­hai is a fu­sion of old and new. The ship docked within walk­ing dis­tance of the wa­ter­front area called the Bund, lined with block af­ter block of his­tor­i­cal build­ings. By bus, we headed for a 45-sec­ond, high-speed el­e­va­tor ride to the ob­ser­va­tion deck atop the 88-story Jin Mao Tower, its post­mod­ern oc­tag­o­nal de­sign based on the Chi­nese lucky num­ber eight.

Af­ter ex­plor­ing Peo­ple’s Square, the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural cen­tre of Shang­hai, we lunched at the Jin Jiang Ho­tel, which has re­ceived heads of state since 1929. Other stops: the Old City with its colour­ful sou­venir shops and dumpling houses, and Yuyuan Gar­den, a sprawl­ing pub­lic gar­den with a tea house, pago­das and bridges dat­ing to the Ming Dy­nasty.

One of Crys­tal’s be­spoke tours (with a pri­vate driver and guide) took us to the French Con­ces­sion, a posh area ad­min­is­tered by France and pop­u­lar with for­eign­ers from the mid-19th to mid-20th cen­turies. On the famed shop­ping street Nan­jing Road, we saw lo­cals lined up to buy qing­tuan, or green dumplings, for Tomb Sweep­ing Day, when peo­ple pay re­spect at an­ces­tors’ graves.

On our last day in town, we took an op­tional ex­cur­sion to a for­mer Jewish neigh­bour­hood once known as Lit­tle Vi­enna. An older guide with roots in the com­mu­nity spoke pas­sion­ately about the suc­ces­sive waves of Jewish im­mi­gra­tion. The Chi­nese wel­comed Jews who ar­rived in Shang­hai af­ter the Holo­caust and helped them re­build their lives.

Bei­jing

With its con­gested road­ways, se­vere air pol­lu­tion and scarcity of English spo­ken (even by taxi driv­ers), Bei­jing can be es­pe­cially in­tim­i­dat­ing to West­ern­ers. Our bus driver pa­tiently nav­i­gated traf­fic jams, and Crys­tal Cruises had ne­go­ti­ated ac­cess through spe­cial gates at some tourist at­trac­tions to avoid hu­man grid­lock.

“Stay to­gether like sticky rice,” cau­tioned one guide.

We wan­dered through the maze of nar­row streets and al­leys and joined hoards of do­mes­tic tourists at two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: For­bid­den City, a mu­seum of 980 build­ings that was once an im­pe­rial palace, and Tem­ple of Heaven, where em­per­ors prayed for a good har­vest.

The lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive high point of the trip was climb­ing a sec­tion of the 30-foot tall Great Wall, a for­ti­fi­ca­tion hand built by slaves and pris­on­ers of war that mea­sures at least 5,500 miles.

One might rea­son­ably ar­gue that this voy­age, called China in Depth, wasn’t truly deep or im­mer­sive. But it was a fas­ci­nat­ing, headache-free in­tro­duc­tion to the coun­try and ramped up our con­fi­dence in re­turn­ing as in­de­pen­dent trav­el­ers.

JEROME LEVINE, TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

A view of the Shang­hai sky­line at night from the Crys­tal Sym­phony.

JEROME LEVINE, TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

A re­clin­ing Bud­dha at Jade Bud­dha tem­ple in Shang­hai.

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