China & The Queen Elizabeth
Part of A ’Round-the-World Cruise
by Lisa TE Sonne
Sipping coffee in the realm of teas, we sat on a balcony, cruising past little islands woven in morning mist. We were approaching the tall modern buildings of Hong Kong. Wooden fishing boats bobbed below and tugboats headed toward us, ready to guide the 12-deck high MS Queen Elizabeth to this thriving international metropolis.
My husband and I were entering our final port while living out an “Around the World Cruise” fantasy – well, one leg of the trip, anyway.
When Victor saw that Cunard line’s elegant MS Queen Elizabeth was offering balcony suite cabins for a five-day Shanghai to Hong Kong cruise, at very attractive pricing, we quickly booked. We may not have the time and funds right now to take one of the full “Around the World Cruises” offered by many lines, but we could happily fill a cabin for a trip segment. Often, globe cruisers choose different ports to begin and end their voyage, creating openings with some bargain-priced luxury.
It was a trip of contrasts. We were short-term among passengers who were long-term, and we were making short visits to places with long histories. We were going from the white-gloved, art deco graces of the Queen Elizabeth — a glamorous nod to an earlier era of travel — into some of the most modern, densely-populated cities on the planet. Yet amidst a high-rise forest, there could be a temple six centuries old with monks chanting (and tourists taking selfies).
We were entering Chinese harbours under a British flag, but the buildings on the horizon were taller than those of London, in contrast to past history. Our cadences also had contrasts: we would have a day onshore of wonderful sensory overload with throngs of people, followed by an unwinding day at sea, ordering room service and lounging alone on our balcony as scenery glided by.
While “at sea,” we could have gone to lectures, classes, auctions, parties, played croquet, swum in pools, or been massaged at the spa. We elected to go to afternoon English tea in the ballroom with live classical music, and delectable teacakes — a good contrast to the tea we had enjoyed with spicy rolls as the only Caucasians at a lively onshore Chinese shop.
Shanghai was a vibrant place to start our trip — a city of more than 26-million people. We arrived days early in the embarkation port in order to acclimate to time changes and weather, get our bearings, and ramp up at our own rhythm before the start of our cruise.
Shanghai’s hop-on, hop-off bus system with English maps made it easy to pace ourselves and wing it, choosing from many parks, museums, shopping centers, as well as specific districts like the waterfront Bund with its colonial architecture. The buses are also good for watching the city’s pulses of traffic and pedestrians, as well as looking ever up — especially at the futuristic Pudung skyline, including the pink-sphered Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
We woke in our hotel with a view of people of all ages doing a kind of choreographed tai chi among trees and flowers in the famous People’s Park (formerly the British Race Club, in the 19th century). By contrast, a short night walk took us to a bustling area of shops that seemed to be trying to outdo Las Vegas in neon signage.
Cruising south through the Taiwan Strait took us to the island world of Xiemen. Few buildings in this city of several million people were tall, skinny rectangles. Highrises reached skyward teasing gravity with some swooping or angular creativity.
For a sense of context, we signed up for the “Traditions of Xiemen” shore tour that included museums, temples, and parks including one with caves where religious figures were placed. (Diverse excursions were offered by the ship’s team – from private to group – but none were included in the price of the cruise.) This was one of those “wear a numbered-sticker,” follow-the-guide-with-a flag, bus and walking tours, but we were glad to see and to do what we could in a short period. For more personal interactions, we asked one of the local guides to lunch. We let him pick the restaurant and food, as we picked his brain to learn more about modern China.
We learned that this city had once been the center of the British tea empire, until India provided cheaper teas. Now it was an international banking center with rapid growth of population, commerce, and imaginative buildings.
What a great complex of geography and culture to enter by ship! After sipping our coffee on our balcony, we enjoyed a 360-degree walk around the lovely deck, with stimulating views in every direction.
For our selected tour, we took a sky-tram to where a giant Buddha looked over the land. We ambled through a shopping promenade that seemed quite capitalistic and was literally bullish –horned cattle walked freely. We also enjoyed a several-course lunch in an area adjacent to an ancient temple – with incense, robed monks, and a sense of old mystery.
When we look back at our trip, some of the images that stand out most were the moving ones projected on the skyscrapers at night as if to say ‘our buildings are our screens; the future is here now.’
Around the world again
Until I can actually circumnavigate, I would go by segment again. It can be a travel bargain and the people you share meals with and take classes with can be fascinating, full of tips and tales. When we boarded in Shanghai, most of our fellow passengers had already shared Japan and Australia on this voyage. We spoke to one passenger who had been around the world five times on cruises.
According to boat officials, there were several people onboard who had circled the globe by ocean twelve times. Such cruises appeal to travelers for a variety of advantages including the convenience of not needing to repack and wait in lines at airports, the assurances of a home-base that is clean, safe and well-organized, and the pleasures of being at sea in a personalized suite within a floating city of more than 2,000 passengers, with multiple amenities and entertainments.
After seeing Shanghai, Xiemen, and Hong Kong a la MS Queen Elizabeth, Victor and I felt like we had consumed appetizer-size tastes of both around-the-world cruising and three fascinating urban ports of Asia. We took the contrasts of our trip home with a broader view of the world, and a deeper sense of life’s possibilities in our times.