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China may seem a long way off to those of us based in Western Europe, an alien country in the mysterious east. In fact of course from London the two major direct gateways of Beijing and Shanghai are only 10 and 11 hours flight time, less than LAX. The editor recently visited China for the first time, courtesy of Air China, and these are his first impressions. His routing took him to Beijing and the Great Wall for three nights; then by air to Xi”an, the ancient capital and home of the terracotta warriors, for a quick one-day visit; and finally to Shanghai, one of Asia”s great cities, for a four night sojourn. In total just over a week for a tour of a lifetime.
China is a vast country with a population of 1.3bn, certainly as far as the main centres are concerned developing fast with a sophisticated infrastructure and immense drive and initiative. It is very health conscious having quickly learnt from the SARS scares of 2003. It is clean, friendly, and with all school children taught English from an early age. However it is a one party communist state, benevolent these days but still trapped into the type of bureaucracy we thought had disappeared with the ending of the last century. You need a Visa and to get out of the country takes at least three forms to fill in and innumerable checks. Are these words a contradiction of terms? Probably yes. But that is China.
Why do people visit the Republic? Firstly for business purposes to involve themselves in what is the world”s fastest growing economy; secondly as a tourist in a country whose history goes back to the beginning of civilisation; and thirdly for the shopaholics. In a lifetime of travelling the editor has never seen so many opportunities to dispose of money; from the huge open air markets selling 10p t-shirts and counterfeited Rolex watches, to the Rolls-Royce and Porsche showrooms in the centre of the cities. All the time the pressure is on to buy. And for the most part it is very good value too.
Visiting China is not like a trip to Europe. A last minute booking of a cheap flight and a hotel on the Internet. You really do need to go to a China specialist who knows the market and the nuances. ABTN chose Cultural Tours, a long established central London organisation, who was able to provide a tailored visit and a guide and driver (and friendly face) at Beijing International Airport upon arrival, and everywhere else. They seemed to know the quick way out of the extremely modern terminals to the waiting cars (mobile phones are all the rage in China and the driver never seemed more than a few minutes away) and when it came to the more complicated visits, such as the Forbidden City and The Great Wall (seen in our photos), whatever it took to get past the queues seemed easy for them, whilst others, mostly hordes of Chinese, just waited patiently. Yes, you can get around in China by yourself but outside the main tourist venues everything is written in Chinese characters, enough to put anyone off.
Air China dates from 1988 when the old CAAC was broken up into various constituent carriers. Today it is a very modern airline with only Airbus and Boeing equipment operating 68 international and regional routes linking 32 cities in 17 countries. It sets a very high standard of timekeeping and like all businesses in China benefits from the extremely low cost of manpower. Where we would have one person to do a job the Chinese often have two or three. Where 30 minutes is the normal turnaround for domestic flights Air China seems to allocate one hour. They board you early, settle you down quickly and often get away from the gate prior to the publicised departure times. And there is no waiting to be number five or 10 in the queue to take off. Chinese airports are just not that busy. The domestic economy service is good. On the London route CA have just introduced the latest in traditional style business class seating, just 24 passengers upstairs on a Jumbo, as quiet and comfortable as you will get. However, whilst the actual food is fine on international routes the airline lags far behind Cathay Pacific, another ”Chinese” carrier, in terms of quality of service and production. It is like flying on ANA 10 years ago. Keen but outdated. Air China needs to recruit from Hong Kong senior cabin service management to bring it up to international standards.
In the big cities the international hotel chains are vying with each other to build the biggest and best properties, local administrators and entrepreneurs only too keen to help and invest, with the backing of the Chinese government. Shangri-La, Hyatt and JW Marriott (seen here in Shanghai with the National Opera House in front) have some exceptional ”palaces”, once again perhaps overstaffed from a western point of view. But does that matter?
Shanghai should be compared to New York, a 24-hour skyscraper city (but with much wider avenues), whilst Beijing is Washington, the real seat of political action. Xi”an is a Philadelphia. The power may have gone but it is still there to remind the visitor of past glories.