’Round the world in 72 days: China and India

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 65 of the January 2011 issue.

by Philip Wagenaar (part five of a series)

In recent issues, I recounted the Australian part of the ’round-the-world tour that my wife, Flory, and I started in the fall of 2009. This month, I continue with the China and India portions of our trip.

On Oct. 12, 2009, we were treated like royalty once again as we checked in with China Southern Airlines (CZ) for our business-class flight from Sydney, Australia, to Guangzhou (Canton), China. (In part one, I describe how we booked all of our flights using frequent-flyer miles.)

We disembarked to a long row of examiners, all with face masks, scrutinizing every passenger for any evidence of swine flu. We survived the inspection.

Because Flory was being transferred by wheelchair, we then bypassed a number of humongous lines, each for a different purpose (health, Immigration, Customs, etc.).

For safety’s sake, we had ordered a private shuttle from the hotel, which was a van complete with a driver and a busboy. The driver stayed with the van while the busboy went inside the airport to hold up a sign with our names.

It took 45 minutes and RMB300 (about $45) to get to the four-star Guangdong Victory Hotel Guangzhou (53, Shamian, Guangzhou, Guangdong 510130, China), where, following the recommendations of many travelers, we had chosen a business room in the East Building.

Economically priced at about $60, the accommodation turned out to be excellent. Breakfast was superb also and, at about $8 per person, the most reasonably priced we’d had in weeks.

Although I customarily make bookings directly with hotels, I had reserved the Guangdong Victory Hotel through the website Booking.com, which did not add a reservation surcharge. Booking.com representatives were extremely helpful when I talked to them on the phone, even procuring the hotel shuttle for us.

Planning a tour

At 8:30 p.m. the hotel’s business office was still open (that’s China for you) and we could order a sightseeing trip for the next day. The trip, costing about $45, took us to Lotus Mountain (Lianhua Shan), with its pagodas, temples and other Ming Dynasty architecture.

The mountain is located in Panyu City, about 45 kilometers southeast of Guangzhou. On the way up, we stopped at a lake full of lotus leaves and noticed that, despite the severe pollution, there were many cyclists on the road, a number of whom were wearing white face masks.

Lunch at Hotel Yadin, included in the tour, was another experience. Hostesses, decked out in striking costumes, stood in a semicircle outside, and as soon as guests arrived, a hostess accompanied them to a table and took their order, which she immediately transmitted through her lapel microphone to the kitchen.

Our guide chose a delicious meal for us: tofu and mushrooms followed by a fish ball soup with vegetables, topped off by fried rice with “kosher” shrimp. At the beginning of the meal, hot wet towels were provided.

Interestingly, Chinese customers at the table next to us were drinking Coke from wine glasses.

Exploring around our hotel

The next morning, Flory and I took a walk around our hotel, which was situated amidst beautiful old homes dating from the 1890s, when the English and French concessions were active. We ended up in a park where women were doing their daily Tai Chi. Everybody performed so well that we could not figure out who was leading the group.

Across the street from the hotel was a bridge connecting bucolic Shamian Island to the mainland.

Our lunch was in the luxurious Chinese (as opposed to Western) hotel dining room, whose ambience was awesome. The many hostesses all were exquisitely dressed and full of smiles.

With the English menu provided, we tried to order different meals, but we ended up with similar bowls of soup (about $9 each). Each was delicious, but, between the two orders, there was enough to serve six people.

As we left the dining room, one of the waitresses pointed out that I had a crumb of rice clinging to my lips, and when I thought I had wiped it off, she said,” “Other side.” I was impressed by her English-speaking ability.

Leaving for India

The hotel bus took us to the airport for our flight to India. We boarded through the East 1 Concourse of Area A, the gateway for all international passengers.

At the counter, I had to fill out a form stating why Flory needed a wheelchair. When I indicated she had heart trouble, it turned out to be the incorrect answer, as the agent questioned whether Flory would be able to fly at all. After a little discussion, I stated that Flory and I were both physicians and that cleared everything up!

The trip from Canton to Delhi on China Southern Airlines was on an old, dilapidated 757, where the unpleasant smell from food cooking in the heating cabinets wafted into our noses. The food did turn out to be edible, however.

Arrival in Delhi

No jetway was available at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, but everybody helped in getting Flory down the stairs from the aircraft, onto the bus and into the terminal building, where long queues of people needed to be “healthed, immigrated and customed.”

Our wheelchair attendant not only pushed Flory, he insisted on hauling all of my carry-on luggage. None of this required a tip. “It is my job,” he said.

The India, Oman and United Arab Emirates parts of our ’round-the-world tour were superbly organized by Barbara Sansone of Original World (131 Camino Alto, Ste. E3, Mill Valley, CA 94941; 888/367-6147).

The costs for our private tours were $8,036, India; $7,270, Oman, and $1,970, UAE, which included vehicles, guides, drivers, hotels and breakfasts.

We found our tour guide, who was holding up a sign with our name, and with his help and that of the wheelchair attendant we managed to get through the throngs at the airport. Compared to how the multitudes were leaving in complete disorder, our departure from the airport in an air-conditioned car was pure heaven.

As it was three hours earlier in Delhi than in Canton, it was 11 p.m. for us and we were so tired that we fell into bed upon arrival at the hotel.

Unfortunately, our next flight, to Bhubaneswar in Orissa, was not until 6 p.m. the next day, and since the hotel was close to the airport but far away from the town and it was too hot to walk outside, we spent the day reading in our air-conditioned room.

Flying to Bhubaneswar

Just before our departure to Bhubaneswar on Kingfisher Airlines, two people lifted the wheelchair with Flory inside it onto a bus, which drove over the tarmac to the stairs leading to the plane. Upon arrival, this magic process was reversed, with airline personnel insisting on transporting my carry-ons.

On this flight, the seats were closer together than we had ever seen before and the seat back in front of us had a sign on it saying, ‘This seat does not recline.’ Had it reclined, it would have crushed me. Many other chairs sported the same information.

Next month, I will continue narrating my impression of the delightfully chaotic Indian traffic and more.