Our cruise on the Crystal Symphony from Hong Kong to Beijing was packed with famous and fascinating places – a trip of a lifetime, as people often say. The final stop before disembarking in Beijing, however, was a bit of a mystery. Dalian, China – a financial center and seaport in northeastern Liaoning Province and home to more than six million people.
An interesting perk of cruise travel is that you often find yourself in places you typically would not visit. Dalian proved to be one of those places. I signed us up for a ship’s excursion that offered a walking tour of the city, a tea break and “ancient kite flying.” Kite flying in China! That was just too enticing to pass up. Crystal posted a disclaimer on this port’s tours, saying that Dalian was an emerging tourist market and that the cruise line did not have its usual stable of well-known and often-used tour operators.
And then it rained. Not just a drizzly, easy-to-get-around-in shower, but a pouring, drenching storm. My visions of colorful Chinese kites were rained out as quickly as the walking tour, but surprisingly, Crystal and the tour operator came up with a back-up plan. Instead of walking, we would ride in a tour bus. And instead of a kite-flying park, we would visit an indoor market. The tea break was still on.
As we walked to the waiting tour bus, a number of people in our group turned back, giving up the tour and a chance to see Dalian. My husband Herb and I persevered, and with our rain jackets, umbrellas and even thin plastic ponchos provided by Crystal, we were ready to tackle whatever would come our way.
I don’t know if it was the intensity of the rain blocking any hope of a view out the windows or the commentary of our inexperienced tour guides, but the tour was just awful. The humor was clearly lost in translation as our two young guides told joke after joke that had nothing to do with Dalian or what we were supposed to be seeing. And then, like a Muzak track reaching the end of its loop, they repeated the same jokes until it was time to get off the bus. The café where we had our tea break also gave little insight into this place called Dalian. The servers tried their best, offering tea in glass mugs and small plates of watermelon slices and biscuits, but we got the impression that they simply weren’t accustomed to dealing with groups of American tourists.
Our last stop was the kite-flying replacement market. Not very hopeful but happy to be indoors, we made our way through the entrance into a large open space that seemed to be a one-stop-shopping destination for food and household items. There were rows of boxes filled with produce, teas packaged in large colorful jugs and cakes with as many as seven layers displayed in the tallest of bakery cases. I think we must have walked through every aisle, in awe of the sizes of everything for sale.
But the real surprise was what we discovered in the basement: Fish. Not the kind you would expect to buy at a food market, but the kind that live in aquariums. Striped, spotted and solid-colored pet fish were swimming in dozens of large, sophisticated-looking aquariums, displayed in rows almost as vast as the food items on the main floor. Everything in this market was done on a grand scale, and ironically, it was the perfect metaphor for what we had seen and experienced in China. And at last, it was what we’d been hoping for: A peek into life in Dalian, a chance to put a face with a name – or in this case, a city.
It was still raining hard when we were dropped off at the dock. As we walked back to the ship, our bizarre day in this port became much clearer. I wouldn’t recommend Dalian as a must-see destination. Travel days are precious, and unless you have an endless amount of free time, they are best spent on places you really want to explore. But if you find yourself in an off-the-beaten-path town, it pays to look around. You never know what you will discover, especially in the basement of an indoor food market.