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Wonders of the East more than keep their promise on a breathtaking trip to China

LOTS of things are so impressive they are called Great.

Yes, British Bake Offs pretty good, that wartime Escape film was jolly daring, and the Fire of London did some proper damage.

The Great Wall of China

But all piddling small fry compared to one of the true modern wonders of the world, The Great Wall of China.

Standing in sunlight on a tiny bit of this vast, man-made fortification, its impossible for your jaw not to drop.

There are plenty of places you can visit the Great Wall well, it does stretch for more than 3,000 miles across the top of China.

We went to Mutianyu, reputedly one of the best sections, and just an hours drive from our base in Beijing.

A cable car whisked us up and we walked in awe along the top as the wall snaked off endlessly in each direction. It was real bucket-list stuff.

And not surprisingly the wondrous highlight of a visit to this vast country, which had dozens of standout moments.

We were on Virgin Holidays Taste Of China, a ten-day escorted tour, taking in three key cities and with the option to add on a visit to Hong Kong and/or the panda sanctuary at Chengdu.

We flew to SHANGHAI on one of Virgins plush new Dreamliners. There we met the rest of our group 20 of us in all and Chris, our guide for the whole stay.

Alan with guide Chris

Chris was our secret weapon. Funny, knowledgeable and with great English, he checked us into hotels, herded us on to trains, told us the best places to visit and even suggested when to go to the loo.

China is not an easy place to visit on your own. Its the size of Europe and at 1.3billion, its population is 20 times that of the UK. But hardly anyone speaks a word of English.

Hail a cabbie and ask him to take you to the local Novotel or Marriott and he wont have a clue you need the name of your hotel written in Mandarin if youre to stand any chance.

And signs on streets or in shops? Theyre only in Chinese characters.

So everyone needs a Chris. And ours was with us every step of the way, along with local guides in the cities we visited.

We whizzed into Shanghai on the Maglev train which hits speeds of 260mph. In two whirlwind days we visited the old Colonial splendour of the Bund, had a night tour of the city, saw dumplings being made in the Old Town, went up one of the tallest towers and even took in an acrobatic show.

A super-efficient bullet train took us the 800-plus miles to BEIJING in just five hours and on time to the minute (Southern Rail, please take note).

We arrived to temperatures of -7C. And you know the advice that you should wear lots of layers to keep warm in cold weather? Standing in Tiananmen Square with snow on the ground and wind whipping in from Mongolia, there just arent enough layers in the world!

The vast open space has tight security. But walking across it to the Forbidden City the huge conclave of past emperors you get a real sense of travelling through history.

Dont expect anyone to mention the 1989 massacre most Chinese have no idea what happened. Trips, like the one to the Great Wall, are included in the price of the holiday but there are optional evening tours, from 20 to 30.

One took us for a magnificent Peking duck dinner at a swish restaurant in Beijing it was very different to the crispy duck we get here.

Breakfasts at the three 4* hotels we stayed in are also included, as is either dinner or lunch on most days. The meals we had were good and pretty westernised.

But food in China is nothing like the Chinese you get in the UK, so be careful if you go out to eat.

They really do cook and eat EVERYTHING chicken feet, whole tiny birds, scorpions, lambs feet, the lot.

You can get around quite easily on your own once youve got a note in Mandarin from your guide. Taxis are dirt cheap but the underground in Beijing is faster and cheaper, with the signs and ticket machines in English too.

We went off on our own to visit the hutongs former slums around communal squares that have become trendy pads for the rich and home to a strange breed of hipster shops and coffee bars.

Last stop of our guided tour, again by bullet train, was XIAN, home to the terracotta warriors.

Terracotta warriors in Xian

Discovered in 1974, these life-size clay replicas of the army of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty were buried with him in 200BC to guard him in the afterlife. Stunning, and a close second on the list of China highlights. Row after row, the warriors seem to go on forever. There are thought to be 8,000 of them but only a fraction have so far been uncovered.

As well as the key sightseeing hotspots, the trip is a great chance to sample the contradictory culture of China thats so alien to us from the West.

From the market in Xian where butchers hack at sheep carcasses hanging on hooks in the street, to the knock-off markets where a Rolex costs a fiver.

Street food stall in Xian

From the street cafes serving bowls of indescribable food, to the state-of-the-art train stations and high-tech rail network.

From the signs and statues extolling Mao and Communism, to the hundreds of high-rise new-builds and the swish malls selling capitalist Gucci and Versace.

Ingredients for the trip of a lifetime.

Or should that be Great Trip of a Lifetime?


GETTING/STAYING THERE: The ten-day Taste Of China tour with Virgin Holidays Worldwide Journeys is from 1,779pp, based on two adults sharing on a mixed board basis.

It includes Virgin Atlantic flights to Shanghai, accommodation, sightseeing entrance fees encompassing Beijing, the Great Wall, Summer Palace, Forbidden City and Xian, experienced English-speaking guides and local transfers.

Book at or call 0344 557 3859. Alternatively, visit one of Virgins 110 stores in Debenhams, House of Fraser, Tesco or Sainsburys nationwide.

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