China in Our Hands; Escape: Far East: Adventurer MILES HILTON-BARBER's Blindness Did Not Stop Him Marvelling at Beijing, Xian and the Yangtze River

Article excerpt

Byline: MILES HILTON-BARBER

CHINA! Two short weeks in this amazing country gave me a vast reserve of unforgettable memories. But before I describe it, let me tell you a secret. I am blind. I fell in love with China five years ago, during an 11-day international Ultra-Marathon race across sections of the Gobi Desert and the Great Wall.

I've been blind for more than 25 years, but I have a habit of going off on such adventures to challenge and overcome adversity. This time, I found little hardship in my travel arrangements. I had the privilege of returning with my wife Stephanie to 'do' China, and we were to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on the Yangtze River.

We were both very excited.

We focused on three areas - Beijing, Xian with its Terracotta Army, and a six-day, 1,400-mile luxury cruise down the Yangtze River, taking in the famous Three Gorges Dam project.

We had our own tour guides everywhere we went, and were struck by the common attributes they possessed: a love for their country, seemingly limitless knowledge about its history and achievements, pride in their work, courtesy and respect - all wrapped up in a great sense of humour.

Stephanie kept up a brilliant commentary all the while: gasping that she could see people toiling at the numerous open-air, free gyms that were actually on the pavement, exercise bikes cemented into place. There were crowds doing Tai Chi every morning in public areas, and others were learning musical instruments or ballroom dancing.

WE TRAVELLED three hours out of Beijing in air conditioned comfort to visit the Great Wall in a beautiful remote mountainous area. It was fascinating to walk along it and feel its massive ramparts, knowing the material used over the centuries to construct it could build a wall a metre wide and five metres high right around the earth.

A short flight took us on to the ancient walled city of Xian. At the end of the fabled Silk Road, it was once one of the great cities of the world, still retaining much of its historic character along with its 36ft-high encircling walls.

Our highlight in Xian was a visit to the Terracotta Army. In 1974, a peasant digging a well came upon what now stands as one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century: an army of thousands of life-sized warriors and their horses in battle formation had lain buried for 2,000 years, standing guard over the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi-Huang. The figures were buried with artefacts and weapons of the day, and every figure differs in facial features and expression.

Another short flight took us to the Yangtze port of Chongqing.

Victoria Cruises has a great fleet of ships travelling on the Yangtze, all of which have been extensively renovated in the past two years.

Our ship was the Victoria Prince, with friendly staff catering for around 200 passengers.

As it was our anniversary, I upgraded to the best cabin on the ship, wanting to find a way of expressing my deep love and gratitude to my wife for all her love and support over the years - especially more recently, with me being away from home, undertaking extreme expeditions to such far-flung places as the Himalayas, Antarctica and Siberia.

Our Shangri-La Suite was magnificent: a private balcony taking up half the front of the ship, Jacuzzi bath and a huge cabin with lounge suite and floortoceiling picture windows.

It was sheer decadent luxury to wake up each morning with our private panoramic view from our bed of the vast expanse of the Yangtze River over the bows of the ship and down one side, as China passed by in all her mysterious Oriental beauty, with the early morning mist rising off the river. …