Your Life: Travel: A Show Boat to China; China's Three Gorges Will Be Swamped Next Year When a Massive Hydro Dam Is Completed. We Sent Reporter Don Mackay and His Actress Wife Nichola Mcauliffe to See Them before They Disappear Forever
Byline: DON MACKAY
IF you're looking for grim-faced communists in Mao suits, waving little red books, China is not the place for you.
If you want the company of old fogeys with knee blankets more interested in the menu than the adventure, Saga is not the travel company for you.
We joined the Splendours of the Yangtze tour with pre-conceived ideas about China, born of its dubious record on human and animal rights, and were not looking forward to two weeks reminiscing about the Blitz with our fellow travellers.
But the moment the chauffeur- driven car - included in the price - arrived to take us to Heathrow, delight replaced apprehension.
The nine-and-a-half hour flight to Beijing is too long to travel "goat class", so the offered upgrade merits the extra expense.
Indeed, on the return journey not only were we plied with champagne, wine and enough food to sink Jersey by the charming Air China crew - who could teach some of those minty misses on BA a thing or two - but we were seated in the upstairs "bubble" of a jumbo jet.
The outward upgrade was even more appreciated when, with no time to recover from the flight, we were whisked straight from the airport into a tour of the Summer Palace, once sacked by the British army during our Empire drug-peddling days.
But after the architectural splendours of Europe, Beijing is a visual disappointment. The glories of the Palace and the Forbidden City seem awkwardly out of place in a city stripped of beauty and, in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, resembling a construction site on the Sheffield ring road.
The pollution is literally breathtaking and Tiannanmen Square, vast and impressive though it is, should be avoided in July and August when temperatures typically approach 40C.
But the delightful people of Beijing more than made up for the ugliness of the city and the uncomfortable weather.
It was a relief though to move on, for a brief tour of the remaining old "Hutongs", most of which were swept away to provide people's palaces on the lines of London's North Peckham estate.
These oases of Old China are blessedly untouched by the already ubiquitous KFCs and high-rise concrete. An hour's flight from Beijing is Wuhan, an altogether more human city. There we boarded the Princess Sheena, a modest vessel that was to take us on our five-day cruise of the Yangtze.
We were welcomed by a brass band on the quay who turned out not only to be our waitresses but also the singers and dancers in the nightly cabaret.
Stunningly accomplished they were too ... as well as being disconcertingly good looking.
The cabins were too small for anything but a pair of malnourished whippets, but we managed to squeeze in quite well with a jar of Vaseline and a brick hammer...
There was a pleasant bar and enough deck to walk round to stop the muscles atrophying.
The food and dining room on the boat though were a disappointment after the glories of the Beijing Shangri-La Hotel, where everything from a bacon butty to Sichuan crab was available - though thankfully not "live snake head" or "throat" which were on offer in a restaurant we visited later.
Any idea of the Yangtze being a romantic river is quickly dispelled, despite its ancient history.
Due to Mao's deforestation policy it is a silt-filled mud bath in which rubbish, old shoes and the occasional dead body float past.
Only one body on our trip, but so many shoes it was difficult not to believe everyone in China had just one leg.
The first stop was the new hydroelectric dam which will create a 300-mile reservoir, drowning many towns and farms and causing consternation among environmentalists.
And they have much to concern them... The Yangtze sturgeon, unable to find their spawning routes, are already almost extinct and the river dolphins are following. …