A cruise is a gentle way to discover the bustle of China, writes Pamela Wade.

Having scraped through School Certificate maths, I'm surprised to find myself umpteen years later on a street corner in Dalian communicating with a shoe-shine lady entirely in the international language of mathematics.

She, speaking no English, and I, speaking no Chinese, begin with a simple mime in which she points at my muddy shoes and laughs. She beckons me over to her stool. Soon, we're talking numbers - or writing them. I read the 10 followed by a squiggle that she draws on her palm, strain over some mental arithmetic and nod. The equivalent of about $2 seems good to me, especially when the service includes brushing mud off my trousers and woolly slippers while she toothbrushes clay out of the seams of each shoe.

After vigorous brushing and some tutting over my thin cotton socks on this chilly morning, she returns my shoes, clean and shiny, and I hand over a 10 yuan note. She recoils in laughing horror and I'm thrown into a panic: not enough? Too much? What was the exchange rate again? Since the only other cash I have consists of 100 yuan notes, I shrug helplessly and scuttle away, leaving the shoe-shine lady shaking her head in disbelief. It's a sorry end to our little friendship, and even when I work out later that I paid her 10 times what she asked, I still feel vaguely guilty: perhaps, like the chaos theory butterfly, this tiny transaction could lead to the collapse of the Chinese economy.

However, that's unlikely. My visit to China began in the glitzy temple to commerce that is Hong Kong, where mirror-glass towers test the limits of physics. The harbour bustles with boats, one of which is my home for the next 10 nights: Silversea's Silver Whisper, an elegant white ship small enough to dock in ports inaccessible to the giants. It's not only stylish and luxurious but welcoming and friendly, too.

I'm flung straight into full-strength China at Xiamen. A port in the Taiwan Strait, it is tagged "China's Second Most Liveable City". I gawp down Zhongshan Rd: long-johns hang to dry from swanky apartment windows; new BMWs are parked by buildings swathed in bamboo scaffolding; a man in a cane hat outside McDonald's sweeps up burger wrappers. It's yin and yang: denim-clad boys with spiky hair and old men in Mao jackets; women outside designer boutiques, loaded baskets slung from their shoulder yolks.

Two days' sailing north answers the question on everyone's lips: China's most liveable city? It's Dalian. Clean, modern and bursting both with people and civic pride, it's home to China's only division of mounted policewomen: three dozen tall, confident young women - different from the "lily-footed women" whose bound, lotus bud-shaped footprints are moulded in bronze in Xinghai Square.

Old things are still valued here, and on a hill above the city I follow a 2000-year-old tradition and fly a kite. I don't notice the snow-melt until my shoes stick fast in the mud, so I'm pleased to meet the shoe-shine lady on my way to the Russian Street. Stalls of Babushka dolls are manned by Michelin girls in thick, quilted jackets. This is spring - how cold must winter be? Docking at Tianjin, Beijing's port, warnings of ice on deck give me some idea. On this freezing March morning, China's capital glows in bright sunshine. The intricate blue-and-green patterns of the Forbidden City dazzle against the red and gold of the pillars; Mao looks benignly from his portrait at the end of Tiananmen Square over crowds and great-coated guards.

A day's sail south raises the temperature and at Qingdao brides with bare shoulders pose for photos at St Michael's Catholic Church. People are friendly here: "Hello, foreigner!" choruses a party of schoolchildren, excited to be at the seaside. The beach swarms with people sieving rock pools with tea-strainers and sunbathing on the yellow sand.

The voyage ends when we glide up the river into the centre of Shanghai. It is also a chaotic mix of past and future - stimulating, astonishing and exhausting - so I'm thankful that the Silver Whisper has been not just a ship but a safe harbour, too.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has daily flights from Auckland to Hong Kong, connecting via sister airline Dragonair to over 20 major cities in China, including Xiamen, Dalian, Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai. Special fare packages are often available.

Further information: Silversea Cruises has six all-suite small luxury liners constantly touring the world's oceans, offering a wide selection of itineraries ranging from seven days to three months. Prices are inclusive of meals, all drinks, mini-bar, entertainment, room service and gratuities - onshore excursions extra.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Silversea Cruises and flew to Hong Kong courtesy of Cathay Pacific.