We depart SFO at 8:45 AM on 12 April for Vancouver and depart Vancouver at 12:30 PM for Beijing. We arrived in Beijing at 2:30 PM on 13 April after crossing the International Dateline, so I will use the dates appropriate for China. The last leg of the flight is 11 hours long.
There were very few planes at the Beijing Airport and the baggage claim area seems only populated with people from our flight. Before baggage claim we passed through immigration very fast without any questions asked. After baggage claim our tour group was waived through the high tech looking bag scanners in the customs area. There were lines of Asians waiting to pass through customs, but apparently tour groups, at least US tour groups, are not considered a problem. The Beijing Airport is very beautiful inside with lots of chrome and marble – and kept spotless by a large cleaning crew that was apparent everywhere we looked.
We were greeted by our OAT Tour Guide (China Guide) Linda (Liu Feng) and our Beijing Guide (Local City Guide) Jessica (Feng Li Zhang) – both ladies are about 30 years old and quite attractive. Jessica’s English is very good, while Linda speaks more ‘Chinglish’ – she was not taught English by a native English speaker and thus lacks some of the English subtleties. But her delightful personality more than compensates for our slight extra effort to initially understand her instructions.
We board a bus for the ride from the airport to our hotel, the Beijing Hotel. The bus ride is very interesting as it drives past hovels on the outskirts of Beijing and then modern glass and chrome towers that form the new Beijing – Bei (northern) Jing (capital).
After arriving at our hotel we had time for a short walk about through the neighborhood and tour the adjoining Grand Hotel which is much newer than the Beijing Hotel. The Beijing Hotel is reputed to be the oldest hotel in the city and quite historic. We walked a few blocks along a secondary street that appeared to be a local restaurant row. Across the street were many small ‘mom & pop’ stores, but we did not investigate.
At the hotel we had a tour briefing by our China Guide, Linda, and then a five course welcoming dinner that included appetizer, soup, tempura, dessert, and fruit. Then it was off to bed.
Some jet-lag interrupted sleep, but not too bad. Looks like a clear and warm day. I took a photo of the street sweeping crew moving through the city on bicycles – someone has to clean up after 12 million people!
Our agenda for the day is Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and then the Temple of Heaven. Weather is great with mostly sunny and mid-60’s temperatures.
A very short bus ride from the Beijing Hotel to Tiananmen Square. We walked around the Square and viewed the outside of Chairman Mao’s Tomb, the Hall of the People which serves as the Chinese Congress and the North Gate entrance to the Forbidden City.
We walked through the Forbidden City, which was recently best shown off in the movie “The Last Emperor.” It is just too difficult for a person from a country with a 200 year history to appreciate the age and culture of such a historic site.
Next we had a great lunch at a Chinese restaurant that featured cuisine from the Eastern parts of China where the people are Muslim and thus the food had overtones of Mid-Eastern dishes.
The bus ride to the Temple of Heaven, a three level unique round shaped structure, was used twice a year by the Emperor to pray for good crops in the spring and good harvests in the fall. The number 9 is the imperial number and appears in many aspects of the Temple including steps and figures on the roof trim and edges.
A short bus ride back to our hotel where the photographer from Tiananmen Square had out group picture waiting at a reasonable 60 Yuan ($8). I like the picture with Chairman Mao looking over our shoulders. I also bought a Chairman Mao T-shirt inside the Forbidden City and several packs of 10 Yuan postcards from the ever present souvenir pushers.
We walked through the shopping center near our hotel and found a Bank of China ATM and I withdrew about 500 Yuan. We then walked though a huge department store and bought some bottled water, soda, dried fruit, and cookies. We were looking for an extension cord for Becky’s curling iron, but never saw anything close. We got stared at a lot in the store, but it was much more evident at the various tourist stops as our city guide said Chinese visitors to Beijing do not see many foreigners in their towns and villages.
Dinner featured the famous Peking Duck. This was a very good meal with a large selection of dishes and good sized portions.
After returning to our hotel our city guide took us on a short (one-stop) subway ride on Beijing’s #1 Line which just opened October 1999. The slightly older line runs in a ring around Beijing and this new line runs east-west through the southern part of the city.
Tomorrow is the Great Wall and Chinese Opera!
Weather is sunny and temperatures in the mid-60’s. My night’s sleep was only interrupted for about an hour from the effects of jet-lag.
The weather was perfect by the time the bus arrived at the Baddaling section of the Great Wall. It was about a 2 hour bus ride from our hotel as travel through Beijing is quite slow due to the traffic. Outside of Beijing we traveled on a new 4 lane toll road that goes past the Great Wall site and make the trip much shorter than it must have been on the narrow 2 lane road that can been seen paralleling much of the toll road. Of course any bus ride, inside or outside of Beijing, is very interesting as the sites, both landscape and people, are most interesting. During the city portion of the ride we caught glimpses of the very narrow alleyways and passages that lead from main streets back into the residential areas where many of Beijing’s citizens live in single story dwellings. The new multi-story apartment complexes are near the edge of the city.
Driving in Beijing is not for the weak, as a matter of fact neither is ridding in a bus. The only rule of the road seems to be don’t run into each other. Other than that shared driving basic it is a constant game of ‘chicken’, macho, cut throat, no quarter given driving. The city guide mentioned several times not too look out the front window of the bus if the driving bother you – good advice as even looking out the sides caused occasional grimaces.
The Great Wall is north of the city about 50 km and there is a small town at the access site that sells the ubiquitous souvenirs an drinks to the throngs of tourists. Our bus stopped at a nice combination coffee house and gift shop that allowed us to use their restroom for free, or a small donation – most public restrooms charge 20-30 Cian or cents – about 3 cents US. It seems several in our group equate 1 Yuan with $1 as they think spending 60 Yuan or $7 US for a group photo is too expensive?
The portion of the wall we visited has been restored for tourists. Still, seeing this section which must have stretched 2-3 km from hilltop, down through a valley, and backup to another hilltop was impressive. I previously had an impression that the top of the Great Wall was flat to aid walking, but there is almost no section of more than a meter that is flat. Much of the walking surface is paved 18x18 inch dark stone that is quite smooth – enough to be slippery, especially considering the wind blown dust that covers everything. When the surface becomes too steep for paving then steps are used. The steps have irregular heights and treads and thus your full attention is required to climb the stairs. The word climb becomes literal true in at least one stretch where both hands and feet are used to scale what must be a 40% grade – not unlike climbing the Mayan pyramids in Mexico. It is impossible to comprehend the effort required build such a structure as the Great Wall. Just carrying yourself up and along the walkway quickly exhausts your breathing and requires rest stops – what would happen if you were carrying a 60 pound paver?
There is a strange mix of people and attire walking the Wall. The foreign tourists are dressed similarly in their causal pants and jackets. But many Asian men are wearing suits and the women are generally dressed for what appears to be a special occasion. I even saw one young lady in a miniskirt. The juxtaposition of old and new was brought home best by the man I saw walking along the Wall while talking on his cell phone.
Before leaving Baddling we took a few pictures in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. KFC seems to be popular among the Asian tourists. I latter saw this same KFC on a Discovery Channel program about China.
We had lunch at a Friendship Store which is a large souvenirs shop that runs a restaurant as a reason for the tour busses to stop. The food, as has been typical, is quite good and plentiful. The restaurant was above the souvenirs store and we had a table near the entrance. The flow of tourists was non-stop all during our meal.
On the way back to Beijing we stopped at the Ming Dynasty Tombs – 13 of the 16 Ming Emperors are buried in this area – a sort of Valley of the Pharos for the Ming Emperors. Only one tomb has been excavated and only a few artifacts are on display. The coffin with the Emperor’s remains has not been opened. The official Chinese line is they are waiting for preservation techniques to improve before there is further examining and excavations.
A portion of the approach to the tomb area is a 0.7 km long park like walk that has 12 different stone animals groups spaced along the walk. This was a very nice short break from viewing the dark insides of the temples that already seem so similar.
The next stop was dinner in the city at a nice hotel restaurant – but the meal was the nearly identical to lunch – except at lunch we also had a whole fish which appears at about half of the meals.
After dinner we took a 5 minute bus ride to another hotel that features the traditional Chinese Opera in their theater. I would rate the opera performance as excellent – except after such a long day or trekking the Great Wall and with a full stomach in a theater warmed by the large audience, caused me to suffer ‘fish head’ several times – the Chinese phrase for jerking your head as you nod off and reawake to right your head with a start.
Weather looks good again for our last day in Beijing. Another perfect weather day with temperatures in the upper 60’s or low 70’s.
After breakfast in the Beijing Hotel and checkout we took the bus to a traditional neighborhood of one story homes near Tiananmen Square – the so call Hutong. They have a neighborhood association that provides help and services to the members of the association, but mostly they told us about various activities for the seniors. We met a 90 year old man that could easily pass for 70 and saw some of the senior ladies perform a traditional flag dance. We visited a courtyard residence where two brothers owned the courtyard and live with their families – the older brother was a retired communication engineer. Their home was quite simple but comfortable. They had a TV, air conditioning, microwave, and private toilet.
The city guide Jessica said this family was probably very wealthy as the traditional courtyard living is now very popular after many had left this type of housing for the new high rise apartments and found they were not as nice as these courtyard dwellings. So people are buying the courtyard homes and renovating them or rebuilding – what we would call knock downs.
The next stop after a long cross city bus ride through Sunday traffic was the Summer Palace. The main point of interest is the fairly large lake that helps to cool the area with the breeze that sweeps easily over the open space. We took a short boat ride on the lake and had another nice lunch of the same basic Chinese dishes – only the soup seems to change from meal-to-meal.
While visiting the Summer Palace, I had my pen ‘engraved’ by a slick huckster – in excellent English he asked me what country I was from? Then asked if I had a pen. He pulled out a sharp steel nib and began scratching the plastic near the writing end of the pen. When he was done he rubbed a little gold foil over the etchings and told me he drew a dragon, the date and my name which he had also asked. I gave him 5Yuan and thanked him for teaching me about yet another scam.
Back on the bus and cross town again to the train station for our overnight train ride to Xian. We have reserved ‘soft sleeper’ accommodations which is the politically correct way of saying first class in a classless society – there is also a ‘hard sleeper.’ Each train compartment had 4 berths but apparently OAT buys all 4 berths for each couple – so we did not have to share a compartment. The train car has two toilets – one end is a western style and the other Asian style. We were provide with box dinners before boarding the train, as the claim was that even the Chinese do not like to eat the food on the trains. The night passed slowly as we were frequently awakened by the train’s various and numerous motions.
The hope is we can get into our hotel rooms in Xian soon after our arrival, so we do not have to spend to much of another day in the same clothes.
Arrival in Xian via overnight train from Beijing – weather looks clear. We arrived about 7:30 AM at the Xian train station – another typical Chinese mod scene with throngs going to and from the train, people waiting for arriving friends and a small food market packed with people buying ‘fast food’ breakfasts and no doubt meals for the train ride. The train station is just outside the city’s North Gate. The city wall around Xian remains intact except for a small section that was removed to expand the railway station.
Our China guide Linda is a native of Xian and said the city government is making an effort to maintain the old style of the city and thus no high rise buildings are allowed near the wall – most are located well outside the city. The rectangular city wall defines four areas of the city: universities in the south, power and chemical plants in the north, textiles in the east, and electronics in the west.
We stayed at the Xian Garden Hotel which is a very nice modern hotel – the Japanese management attention to details is obvious. While waiting in the lobby for our guide to check us into the hotel, a bell boy passed out hot towels. After checking in and with the arrival of our bags, we all needed a shower and change of clothes – when we returned to our room, after the morning tour and lunch, our room had been refreshed with clean towels and amenities – this is a classy hotel! Laundry service in by 1400 hours is returned by 1700 hours and it worked just as advertised.
Before our showers we gather for a buffet breakfast which was very nice and featured a nice Japanese selection of breakfast items in addition to the usual western dishes.
A short walk around the nearby Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and then our bags arrived so we could shower and change. Then it was off to lunch at another Chinese buffet.
Lunch was followed by Linda’s guided tour of the Chinese History Museum. Her depth of knowledge was impressive. The museum is very nice with modern display facilities as it was built in 1991. The displays also has English titles and explanations which help our appreciation and understanding.
We had a two hour rest at the hotel, which was welcomed after the restless overnight travel on the train. Dinner was a special event with a theater performance included. The dinner specialty was dumplings made to look like various animals – as usual there was lots of food. The show was dancing and playing of Chinese instruments all telling traditional Chinese stories – although the show smacked a bit to much of Las Vegas glitz, it was very well done and quite enjoyable. I particularly liked the flute solo, drum and cymbals group, and the sitar type instrument solo.
Off to see the terra Cotta Soldiers today!
The weather has cooperated again with warmer temperatures of mid-to-upper 70’s – there are no clouds in the sky, but the pollution makes it cloudy as the sun is noticeably filtered.
The day started with a visit to the city’s western wall which is the start of the Silk Road as friends would see off the departing traders that plied the Silk Road. The highlight of this stop was the arrival of about 50 young students on a field trip to visit the city gate and wall. They all said ‘Hallo’ and waved when given the slightest smile or wave.
Next was a 30 minute bus ride to the Ban Po Museum which is the site of an archeological dig of a 6000 year old village. Large portions of the site are inside a building to protect the dig and allow visitors to walk around the perimeter. It was an interesting thought to be looking at the ground where humans lived and made pottery 6000 years ago. An interesting feature of the village was a surrounding ditch, which was depicted as a moat, to keep wild animals outside the village. It seemed to me more likely to be a steep sided ditch which might trap animals looking for food and trying to reach the village.
The bus then headed for the Terra Cotta Army but stopped en route for lunch at yet another Chinese family style restaurant where they pump tourist through like sausages through a grinder. The food was good and the staff tried very hard to please. While waiting for the food top arrive, a chef demonstrates making the long thin noodles that are served in the soup, and you are invited to try the apparently easy task.
The site of the Terra Cotta Army is a first class tourist attraction – I think a spur off the toll road was built to deliver tourist without delay. The strange Chinese custom of making every visitor pass through gauntlet of souvenir sellers was taken to the extreme with a very long line of vendors. However it apparently is strictly enforced that vendors stay in their stalls and do not physically accost the tourists.
The portion of the Army uncovered so far is in three groups or pts and each pit is enclosed in a new building. The tour starts with a 360 degree movie that briefly depicts the history of the first Emperor, building of his tomb with the Army as his after life protection, and discovery of the tomb by a farmer digging a well.
The museum was fairly crowded, as to be expected – a group of 400 had been bussed overland from their cruise ship, a 6 hour bus ride is what I thought I heard mentioned. Unfortunately for me, the hype and expectations I had were diminished by the reality of the site. The reassembled ranks of soldiers is very impressive and viewing the large piles of fragments from which future soldiers will emerge gives a hint at the scope of the archeological jigsaw puzzle.
Pit #3 contains what they think was the Army headquarters, as the troops have ceremonial weapons and were positioned in a different manner from those in Pit #1. Some antlers were also found which were used to for tell the outcome of battles.
Pit #2 is the newest dig and we saw several students working on the digging and restoration.
This was slow day compared to most. We started by walking to the Wild Goose Pagoda a few blocks from our hotel. Buddhists believe the wild goose is a holy animal and thus the pagoda’s name sake. The pagoda is about 1200 years old and was built to house scriptures a famous Chinese monk brought back from India as part of his studies there of Buddhism.
Due to recent pumping of ground water for the city residents, the land under the pagoda has subsided causing a slight, guide said 20 degrees, but not that noticeable, tilt towards the west. Our guide Linda said several other pagodas in China are leaning in a similar manner and all to the west – the origin of Buddhism.
Next to the pagoda is a nice museum that features art from the Tang Dynasty. The Chinese are very proud of the Tang Dynasty accomplishments because they provided the basis for much of the modern art and life styles. We had an English speaking guide in the museum who’s English was flawless, and he had a very informative and entertaining presentation style. The free museum tour ended in a shop that sells original Chinese style paintings – they were very nice and reasonably priced – but lack of luggage space prevents many such purchases.
After checking out of the hotel we took a bus to the city center for a pizza lunch – one slice of pizza followed by a sandwich with pound cake and a banana for dessert. The food was just OK, but a welcomed break from the Chinese family style meals.
After lunch we walked though the local ‘free market’ where people sell food products they have grown or caught. This included a myriad of fish and other seafood, fresh and smoked meats and produce. It was an interesting experience to see how most Chinese people shop on a daily basis.
The big weather event of the day was a dust storm that arose aboutn2 PM. The viability was limited to about 0.5 – 1.0 miles and many people covered their mouths with clothing to avoid breathing the gritty dust. The storm was still blowing when we left Xian at about 6 PM.
The bus then took us to the Xian airport, which is a very modern facility, but as with all Chinese facilities very crowded. We could not enter the secure passenger departure area until our flight was posted – about 1.5 hours before departure. Inside the security area there was ample seating and space. The Airbus 300/EL plane run by China Northwest was very nice and had an aisle much wider than we are used to on US aircraft.
We arrived at the Jin Jang Hotel in Chengdu and were ushered to the dinning room for the now standard Chinese style family dinner.
Although Chengdu is the provincial capital of Secuan Province, the food was not spicy at all – probably at the urging of the local guide. I asked to waitresses for hot sauce and received chili paste (what I wanted) from one and soy sauce from the other.
The Jin Jiang Hotel is rated 5 stars and easily makes that grade. The room amenities are too numerous to mention but included, robes, slippers, candy bars and a tray loaded with various personal grooming aids – comb, tooth brush and nail clipper set.
Tomorrow we see the Giant Pandas.
It rained overnight as a cool front past through the area, but the cooler air – low 60’s – was welcomed as was the fresher air after the rain knocked down some of the pollution.
After a very large and elaborate buffet breakfast we took about a 40 minute bus ride to the Panda Research Center. Strangely, we were almost the only visitors. Our local guide explained that the Chinese can view pandas at many zoos around the country and other Asian tourists are not that interested in pandas. The lack of western visitors was explained as Chengdu is not a typical tourist stop, but more just a place to overnight en route to Tibet via the Chengdu airport.
The lack of a crowd, and rain freshened air, made for a very nice experience viewing the pandas. But our good fortune was greatly increased when we reached the first panda outdoor activity enclosure and found a young US college student studying the pandas as part of her thesis work. She was able to answer our group’s many questions as the pandas were sleeping after their morning meal of bamboo. Every minute a beeper sounded and the researcher would note the activity of the 3 pandas in the enclosure. In addition to 8 Giant Pandas at the Center, there were many Lesser Pandas, which look a bit like a raccoon but with a reddish like a fox.
The bus took us to a local restaurant for yet another Chinese style family lunch. I noticed more and more of the group’s food remains on the serving plates as time goes by. This is probably a combination of tiring of the same type of food and everyone feeling they are eating too much. The buffet breakfasts are probably the best meals of the day as people can eat western food and sample Asian dishes. So by lunchtime you are not too hungry, but in large part as a social activity, and because dinner is a long way off.
After lunch we walked through the local free market that featured mostly plants, tropical fish and other pets such as birds and dogs. The remainder of the afternoon was free time. Becky & I walked around for about an hour looking for a department store to browse, but did not find one despite some general directions on where to look.
Dinner was western style and served in a fancy room on the top floor of the hotel. Then it was early to bed as we have a 3:30 AM wake up call to catch our 6:30 AM flight to Tibet. Two flight a day leave within 10 minutes of each other from Chengdu to Lhasa.
We awoke at 3:30 AM to prepare for our 6:30 AM flight from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet. We were told all the Lhasa flights depart very early in the day so they can return before the thin air warms too much and becomes too thin for takeoffs. Another very pleasant flight, this time on China Southwest Airlines, with a large breakfast served on a less than 2 hour flight – hardly enough time for the peanut snack on US airlines. They cabin crew held a raffle and gave away five gifts by drawing seat numbers.
The elevation of Lhasa is about 12,000 feet and although we had taken Diamox as a precaution, there was still a slight headache all day long – but I also had a slight head cold, so the headache could have been more related to the head cold. The Lhasa airport is about 60 km from Lhasa – our local guide, Chumba, said this is because the land near Lhasa is very fertile, a river valley, and it did not make sense to turn a large part of Tibet’s scarce tillable land into a concrete airport. Thus it was situated where suitable land was available, i.e. flat but not fertile. Chumba said he read once this was the longest distance between a city center and its airport.
En route from the airport to the Tibet Hotel we stopped to take pictures at a small village and I gave the few kids that showed up some candy. We also took pictures of a yak skinned boat – lumber is rare in Tibet. The village dwellings are constructed of adobe, and yak dung is used for heating and cooking fuel. Everywhere you see adobe bricks drying in the sun and round stacks of yak dung.
The next stop was a primary school – 9 years of schooling is mandatory – we happened to arrive at recess and were quickly encircled by the smiling children. We gave small gifts of candy, pencils and such to the principal for later distribution to the children. One of out OAT couples, Dave and Fran, brought a small family photo album to show the thrilled kids. They children were especially excited at the picture of a grandchild with red hair as red hair is associated with the devil in this area. Many of the children spend all week at the school living in dormitories and walking home on weekends – up to a 3 hour walk. They also must bring their own food for the week, which consists of toasted barley flour that the kids mix with hot water or yak butter tea for a quick and easy meal. The dorms are unheated with dirt floors – but all the items in the dorm, bed rolls and bowls, were arranged very neatly. My thought was that if US kids could spend one day in a Tibetan school they would from then on be model students. I was very moved by the poverty of these children, but also their happy spirits.
Our final stop en route to the hotel was for pictures of a pair of yaks tied along side the road. Yaks are called the “Bounty of the Plateau” and there is a statue dedicated to the yaks in the center of Lhasa.
The Tibet Hotel is rated 3 stars and our wing of rooms has recently been refurbished. Still the central heat does not work and either they do not turn on the water heater until later in the morning or it is a long haul from the water heater as my next morning shower was tepid, but Becky’s was OK.
We followed the recommendation of an afternoon nap and general rest after our lunch. This was easy to do after the 3:30 AM wake up call and now full stomach from the buffet lunch.
For dinner we were driven downtown to the Crazy Yak Restaurant for a taste treat of traditional Tibetan food. The food was on the spicy side, but not too hot and I liked it as it reminded me more of Indian cooking than the Chinese fair we had been having recently. After the buffet dinner was cleared away, a four piece Tibetan band setup to play accompaniment for a series of traditional Tibetan opera vignettes of singing and dancing. This was very well done and quite enjoyable.
After dinner and a show it was back to the hotel for a little viewing of the all Chinese cable TV offerings – no CNN here. Then we piled on the many available blankets and had a good night’s rest on the very firm hotel beds.
It rained over night and the high peaks surrounding Lhasa had a fresh coating of snow which increased their beauty. The temperatures are in the mid-60’s by mid-day, but chilly in the mornings.
Our first stop was the Potala Palace which served as the Winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 17th century and before that is was a royal palace for the local king starting in 637 when the first structure was built on the holy hilltop. The Dalai Lama was forced to leave in 1951.
The Potala Palace is divided into two parts – the Red Palace is for religious functions and the White Palace for affairs of state.
The high point of the Potala Palace tour was a brief conversation with the monk who cares for the most holy shrine in the temple – The Shrine of Compassion. His English was quite good and he asked several questions about the States. This monk was one of those very few men you occasionally meet who instantly convey a sense of warmth and caring for others that moves you. While I was speaking with him and looking into his eyes he gave the impression we had known each other for a longtime … an understanding and connection that is hard to explain, but most memorable. By accident I met him later during the Palace tour as I exited the toilet and he entered – I quipped we meet in all the finest places – but I am not sure he got the joke – we shook hands, using all four hands, and he called my his ‘good friend.’ He enjoys pictures of the States and would certainly appreciate receiving postcards: Potala Palace, Monk Gyen Tsen, Lhasa Tibet 85001, China.
After lunch at the hotel we drove to the Sera Monastery. This is where new monks are trained in the Buddhist teachings. The part of the Monastery open to the public are quite small compared to the Potala Palace. The main attraction for the pilgrims is a small shrine where a monk blessed young children and anoints them with soot from a devotion candle. All the candles burn margarine which the pilgrims bring as offerings in 2-3 pound yellow plastic wrapped packages; these are imported from Nepal.
The most interesting part of this tour was observing the monks practicing a question-and-answer ritual. Pairs of monks take turns asking each other questions about their studies; the standing monk asks and the seat monk answers. Prior to asking the question the monk slaps his hands together to announce the question. If the answer to the question is slightly wrong, he slaps his hands again, but rather than palm-to-palm, he uses the back of one hand into the palm of the other. If a very wrong answer is provided, the questioning monk makes a circular motion over the other monk’s head, similar to our hand motion indicating someone is crazy.
Next we visited a middle class family in Lhasa that owns their own four room home with courtyard. The husband was an executive for a construction company before retiring. They have two sons, one lives with them and the other is studying journalism in Beijing. The lovely lady was a most generous hostess and arranged for all of us to have a seat in her living room while she served us yak butter tea with cookies and popcorn. We had an interesting question-and-answer session with her and learned she is 50 years old and was married to her husband in 1971 through an arranged marriage. The family seemed to live quite well on the husband’s pension as they had a TV set and refrigerator. They had a small garden in the courtyard and just outside the house where they grow vegetables using plastic greenhouses. They also had a sow with several small piglets.
In the morning we visited the most holy shrine in Lhasa the Jonhang Temple. This temple contains a statute of Buddha that is thought to have been made during the lifetime of Buddha. Strangely, the temple is closed to pilgrims on Sunday, but not to tourists. SO we were able to walk through without the throngs of believers pushing past us in their rush to complete as many clockwise circumnavigations of the temple as possible.
After the temple interior tour, we walked around the outside of the temple on the streets which were lined with many vendors selling mostly jewelry and clothing. The pilgrims walk around the outside of the temple in a clockwise manner, since on this Sunday they are not permitted inside. The range of dress is extreme as pilgrims from all over Tibet, and other countries, make the trek to this holy temple. I was wearing shorts and received many long and strange stares at my exposed knees and calves, to the point Becky saw a woman walk into a monk while staring at the apparent bizarre site I created.
After lunch in the hotel we walked around the grounds of the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace – the Palace interior was closed on Sundays.
On the walk back to our hotel we stopped in at the Lhasa Hotel which used to be a Holiday Inn. They have a restaurant call the ‘Hard Yak Café’ and sold T-shirts with the world famous Hard Rock Café style, but at 120Yuan ($15) I thought it a bit too much to pay for the implied joke.
Tomorrow is mostly a travel day as we go by plane back to Chengdu and then via bus to Chongqing to board the Victoria Cruise ship for our Yangtze River adventure.
This was a long travel day.
We awoke at 5 AM to prepare for our 6:30 AM departure for the Lhasa airport – 60 KM (36 miles) bus ride the first part of which was in the dark. All of China, and the autonomous regions, are on the same time zone so the further west from Beijing you go the more ‘distorted’ the difference between sun rise, and set, and clock time become. We had to wait about 2 hours at the Lhasa airport for our flight, but once it landed and was made ready we were off for the 1.5 hour flight to Chengdu on another very nice China Southwest flight; no one in our group won any of the onboard raffle prizes this time either.
In Chengdu we were met by a local guide from Chongqing which is our destination city to board the Yangtze River cruise. The bus ride is about 4.5 hours along a 460 KM (275 mile) toll road connecting the two major cities. Once we left the city proper of Chengdu the scenery was very beautiful and what most westerners think of as typical Chinese country side landscapes.
Our very brief bus ride through the streets of Chongqing was interesting as the local guide pointed out several old bomb shelters that were used to protect the residents during the Japanese bombing of Chongqing at the start of World War II. Chongqing is also know for its industrial base as the seat of the Nationalist Government and industry moved to Chongqing when China was invaded by Japan at the start of the war. Today Chongqing is a Mecca for foreign investors because it still has a strong industrial base. For more information about Chongqing:
After another Chinese family style dinner at a local restaurant we arrived dockside and boarded the Victoria 3 at about 6:30 PM and settled into our room. After exploring the ship a bit we had a good night rest. The ship stayed docked in Chongqing for the night as more cruise passengers were to arrive in the morning. Victoria Cruises has a very nice web page with lots of information about its cruises, the Yangtze River area, and China:
We left Chongqing under a mantel of fog which never lifted. So our luck with the weather finally failed, but at least we were indoors, dry and air conditioned. The temperature was mild in the upper 60’s to low 70’s, but the all the moisture in the air creates something like radiation fog. This haze seems to be everywhere along the this stretch of the river and is not associated with the typical city pollution and smog.
The best part about river cruising is the fascination of watching the shore go by and the endless changes of activity both on the shore and river.
The food on the Victoria 3 is quite good and other than a short wait in the line for the luncheon buffet, the boat does not seem crowded despite the nearly full complement of passengers. The crew to passenger ratio is nearly one-to-one with some 112 crew and maximum of 130 passengers.
In the morning we had on onboard demonstration of Asian medicine that included face and scalp scrapping with a wooden spoon, hot herbal treatment, and some electronic gizmo by the ships doctor. A member of our group, Spencer Block, volunteered for the demonstration. When the demonstration got to the hot herbal treatment phase, Spencer passed out or fainted and caused quite a flap among the crew present and passenger looking on. Apparently Spencer volunteered because he had a head cold and thought the treatment might help. But the smell of the hot herbs made him hold his breath and aided in his fainting. He recovered fully after spending the rest of the day in his room. Needless to say the ship’s doctor did not sell any of his prepackaged Chinese medicine kits!
The cruise director, Rachel, gave a very good 1 hour lecture on the history of the Yangtze River as she followed the geography of the river from its source in Tibet to the China Sea and wove in several tales of Chinese folklore that was most entertaining.
Our land based excursion for the day was the city of Fengdu. The city of Fengdu will be flooded, when the 3 Gorges Dam Project is complete, and is preparing to move across the river to higher ground; buildings in the new location were visible. The old city building need to be demolished before the flooding to eliminate future navigation hazards, but no decision has been made about what to do with the demolition rubble; it may have to be hauled away or may remain in place. I thought about the potential for large scale pollution of the river as vast amounts of in situ wastes will no be exposed to the river and percolate up into the river under the large pressures of the water.
The main tourist attraction in Fengdu is a Buddhist temple located on the highest hilltop that is devoted to souls going to heaven. Fengdu is know as the ‘Ghost City’ because a lot of souls do not make it to heaven and thus inhabit Fengdu. There were several interesting folk tales told to us related to this aspect of the city’s history. The temple is most easily accessed via a chair lift which costs 15 Yuan ($2 US) and saves you some 620 steps to the top of the hill. The chair lift ride provides a nice vista city and river, but due to the fog and city smog our view was somewhat limited. The temple has a bit of a Disneyland effect with grotesque characters lining the way to scare away bad souls and several ‘tests’ to see if one is worthy of entering heaven. The tour was interesting, fun, and a welcomed break from a day spent on Victoria 3.
The Victoria 3 sailed all night making for more than a few disorientating nocturnal awakenings as the boat changes speed and direction to avoid other river traffic. A 4:50 AM wake up was required to prepare for the 6 AM entry to the first (down river)of the Yangtze’s three noted river gorges, The Qutang Gorge. Although the weather was warm, the ground fog it caused and early morning low light level did not help in viewing both the shortest and the most dramatic of the gorges. The gorge is about 8 KM (5 miles) long and takes only about 15 minutes to transit. This gorge reminded me a lot of the Big Bend TX float trip Augie & I took on the Rio Grande River. The perspective from the moving river looking up at the soaring vertical cliffs was very similar. I would have to review my Big Bend photos, and those form parts of Lake Powell too, to refresh my memory and decide which was more scenic; I know the Big Bend view was not obscured by fog.
After breakfast the ship docked in Wushan were we took an excursion up the Danning River on sampans to view what are called the Lesser Three Gorges:
This was a 6 hour excursion that included an interesting bus ride through the town of Wushan – which will be flooded after the downstream 3 Gorges Dam Project is completed. The sampans in this case are steel hulled boats with sliding roof structures that admit the sun or prevent the rain; in our case there was no rain and it was sunny on the downriver return. These boats are water jet powered as the low water level in the Danning River and many rocks make propellers nearly useless; the high water rainy season occurs during the summer months. The boats navigate the Danning using 3 men on the bow with long bamboo poles to both turn the bow in the narrow deep part of the river channel and push the boat off the numerous shallow rapids. At first I felt guilty for not pushing the boat too, as these fellows were working very hard, but soon realized these 3 men were doing just fine without me, but certainly earning their daily pay.
The Lesser 3 Gorges were an interesting diversion. I probably took more pictures in these gorges than in the major gorges of the Yangtze because were closer and as we made our way up the Danning River the sun appeared in time for our lunch stop, and turn back point, on a gravel bar. Becky & I picked up a few interesting looking pebbles from the gravel bar as I had seen in several shops such pebbles displayed in shallow glass bowls filled with water – kind of a Chinese version of pet rocks; I now have my pebbles similarly displayed on my desk.
At 2 PM the Victoria 3 set sail again down river into the Wu Gorge which is about 40 KM (30 miles) long and takes about 2 hours to transit. Here the gorge walls are somewhat further apart and after the first few kilometers not a steeply sloped. The viewing was much better than during the earlier Qutang Gorge as we now had full sun. Becky & I resisted the urge for a nap and stayed on deck for the full gorge passage.
At about 5 PM the boat docked for the night at the city of Zigui where after dinner we were treated to a Chinese folk dancing show by a local performance group in their dock side theater.
Another early wake up at 5 AM to view the departure of Victoria 3 and prepare to enter the third and final gorge, Xilang Gorge. The weather was a bit breezy but a haze (fog) still hung in the air the entire day.
The highlight of the day, and most anticipated part of the tour for me, was our arrival at the Three Gorges Dam construction site (Sandouping Village) at about 8:30 AM. We boarded a bus and drove to the dam site museum where we were given an overview project and its construction while viewing a detailed scale model of the dam area. Unfortunately only 20 minutes was scheduled for the museum, which for me was not nearly enough to even view all the explanatory exhibits; strangely the text of these exhibits is only in Chinese whereas most all other museums also included English text.
We were next bused to an overlook for a schedule 40 minute viewing of the surrounding area and dam construction. The combination of fog and haze was fairly bad this day, and probably most others, so viewing was quite limited and made me wish now even more that we had more time in the museum. The main thing to carry away from viewing the dam construction site is the immense size and scale of the project. The details and particulars are best absorbed from numerous publications. The Discovery Channel provides some background on the Three Gorges Dam Project
and the corresponding TV program formed the basis of my pre-visit knowledge about the project. To me the most interesting single aspect of the construction is the ship lift which will provide relatively rapid transit of smaller (cruise) ships via an elevator type structure and thus avoid the 2-4 hour transit via the 5 stage lock system. It would be interesting to return after the completion, scheduled for 2009, to see the dam in operation and the up river effects of the flooded gorges. The local guides are OK but as could be expected lack technical details that are further obscured by translation difficulties. This lack of detail is illustrated by our local guide’s estimate of lock transit time of 2.5 hours, while I overheard another local guide quote 4 hours.
The boat departed down river towards the largest existing dam on the Yangtze, the Gezhouba dam. Here the Victoria 3 passed through the 22 meter (66 feet) lock that lowered the boat to the now ever more placid and widening river. Some photos of this area and brief information about Gezhouba dam:
This was to be our last evening aboard the Victoria 3 and thus we attended the Captain’s Dinner for which I had carried a sports coat half way around the world. After the dinner the crew and some of the passenger groups put on a talent show. The crew performances were mostly Chinese folk dances from various regions and are quite well done with nice costumes and chorography. Two of the tour groups fielded talent acts including a senior singing group and three members of our OAT group – The OAT Flakes. Spencer Block played the mandolin, Dave Nohling the harmonica, and Arnold Isenberg was their Master of Ceremonies. Two musical numbers were followed by a comedy routine featuring Dave and his amazing ability to mock several foreign languages, much like Robin Williams who cannot speak these languages but captures the sounds and rhythms.
The Victoria 3 docked in Wuhan (comprising the old 3 cities of Wuchang, Hankou and Handyang) about 12:30 PM and we transferred to a bus that drove our group to the Jianghan Hotel located in the former French Concession section of Wuhan. En route we drove through the former British Concession area too. These parts of the city have very European looking official and office buildings that are a result of their heritage. These concession areas were small tracts of land the Chinese government gave to foreign powers in the 1880’s to stimulate trade, especially along the Yangtze River. More on these concessions:
After we checked into our hotel, our local guide, Tony, took us to Provincial Museum that housed artifacts from province and featured those from a tomb uncovered in the late 1970’s, after the Cultural Revolution. The main attraction of this exhibit is a large set of bells used as a musical instrument; most of the displayed articles related to a musical theme as the person buried in the tomb was apparently very fond of music. In the museum’s theater there is a performance on a replica of the bells that was very well done. To impress the audience with the versatility of these bells they finish their program of Chinese music with a rendition Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy.’
The next stop was the Yellow Crane Tower (Walking Crane Pagoda). We rode the lift to the top of this 5 story structure and had a nice view of the city of Wuhan. The every present haze and smog diminished the view, but still it was very nice. The local guide said this was a ‘clear’ day. He also told us the story of the Walking Crane mosaic that adorns the entrance to the pagoda as it is a very interesting and popular Chinese myth with a moral about not being too greedy.
After a nice Chinese family style dinner in our hotel, we walked through the local night market with our China guide Linda. Judging by the stares and looks, they do not see many tourists in the market or city. This market was mostly clothing and Linda bought a nice dress for her daughter. These were a few vendors selling a fried version of tofu with some obnoxious smelling spices added for flavor. These Free Markets give you a great impression of what daily life is like in the cities.
An early wake up and buffet breakfast before boarding the bus to the Wuhan airport for our China South flight to Hong Kong. This was officially considered our departure from China as passed through Chinese emigration and took an international flight to Hong Kong where we passed through Hong Kong immigration. Being with a tour group makes the emigration portion very easy, but we had a bit of a wait at the immigration stations.
The China South flight was an older Boeing 737 and had the smallest seat pitch I have ever seen. There was barley enough room to get your legs between the seat to sit down, yet alone any leg room once you managed to get seated. The meal service was not a good as China Southwest either, but the lovely flight attendants were very pleasant. It recall the days of old on US air carriers when service came before low prices.
The new Hong Kong airport is huge. Our guide said it was on the order 1.5 KM long and I can believe that number as we walked on several moving sidewalks before arriving at the immigration stations. On our return for the outgoing flight we rode in a Atlanta Airport style automated subway from the emigration station out to our terminal hub; I think you could walk to our terminal hub too, but the signs lead you to the subway.
We had about a 30 minute bus ride from the Hong Kong airport to the Miramar Hotel which is nicely centrally located right on the famous Nathan Road, Hong Kong’s main shopping street; this is the Kowloon area of Hong Kong. After checking in to the hotel our local guide, Bill, took those that wanted on a brief orientation walk of the streets near the hotel. He pointed out several landmarks to help us find our way back to the hotel and towards which we could walk to see some of the nearby attractions. He also pointed our a few 3rd floor shops where those interest could buy custom made suits and such without getting too ripped off. He was very frank about not buying much in Hong Kong, as the risk of buying a fake is very high and the real items could likely be purchased in the States for the same or less; I confirmed this when I saw what I believe was the same model digital camera priced at $500 in a recommended electronics store that I paid $350 for in Dec 98.
My main adventure this day in Hong Kong was having my ATM card swallowed by a Hang Seng Bank (HSBC) ATM. I am not sure what went wrong but when I tried to insert the card it hung up in the slot with not quite enough sticking out to grab with my fingers; should have bought a Leatherman for this trip! Becky watched the machine while I scurried around the building looking for an entrance to the bank, but found it had already closed for the day as it was after noon on a Saturday. When I returned Becky was still guarding the machine but she said it had come to life and fully swallowed my card while I was away. We moved away from the ATM and watched the next person in line insert their card and obtain notes without a problem. We found another machine and successfully used Becky’s ATM card to obtain some Hong Kong dollars; the Chinese Yuan notes are not accepted in Hong Kong, nor anywhere else in the world but that will soon change too.
The weather is warm with temperatures in the low 80’s with infrequent rain showers. We walked to the Star Ferry and took the very short ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong island. We only walked about a little on the island and then returned on the ferry. The ferry ride is very cheap 1.75 to 2.20 Hong Kong dollars or about $0.30 US and free if you just walk through the line for seniors as no one hassles people for this small amount of money if they decide not to pay. The Chinese Arts and Crafts retail center is near the ferry building and we spent sometime looking through the various souvenirs and then went upstairs and looked through some of the many computer stores on that floor.
We were on our own for dinner, and lunch we decided to skip. This was our only solo dinner of the trip and I think they planned this both because nearly everyone in Hong Kong speaks English and food is very expensive in Hong Kong. Our close by choice was the Avenue Restaurant in the Holiday Inn, but they would not let me in while I was wearing short pants; I think the nice lady at the desk offered me a long coat to wear while dinning, but we decided to walk a bit further to our first choice, The Spice House. This has to be about the most elaborate buffet we have ever seen and at about $40 US per person certainly the most expensive; the place was full of young people and families with children, so apparently it is affordable on a Hong Kong salary. The buffet includes foods from Japan, China, Mongolian Bar-B-Q, India and western items. The Asians seemed to like the Japanese sushi and raw fish while Ms Becky & I dove on the few pieces of roast beef that remained on the serving tray. While not a cheap as the $15 US per person low end spaghetti dinner that others opted for, the buffet was both a great meal and an attraction and the $80 US buffet will be one of my many stories about China and Hong Kong.
The weather was warm and humid with rain a threat. After the breakfast buffet we took the bus to the island of Hong Kong and the tram that leads up to Victoria Peak. The tram ride is amazing and climbs some slopes that I would guess approach 60 degrees! The peak was shrouded in fog so no spectacular views of the bay.
Victoria Peak and Hong Kong pictures by others:
Next was a ride on a Sampan through part of the floating city in Aberdeen. Our local guide, Bill, told us the floating city was a dying sub-culture as more of the young people from the floating village find fishing too tough a way to make a living. There a 2 or 3 months each year in which no fishing is permitted to allow fish breeding and replenishment of the dwindling fishing grounds.
The next tour stop was another home visit where plain folk allow the tour group to enter their home and ask them questions; they are paid a fee by the tour company. This home visit was to government subsided apartment units in which about 50% of the Hong Kong population lives. The unit we visited was probably less than 500 square feet and was home to an extended family of 5; we were told sometimes up to 10 people live in such spaces. The common areas of the building were depressing as the halls are lined with the sliding gate barriers for each door that made the place seem like a prison; it was surmised that the gates allow residents to keep there solid steel doors open while allowing a breeze to pass through the unit while providing security. We were told that crime in Hong Kong is very low, but none the less gangs do pervade these low cost housing units.
The apartment residents are apparently quite happy to live in these rather close quarters. We were told that once a family qualifies for such an apartment they are apparently never re-evaluated for their low income status to remain in the apartments. Some people eventually save enough to rent or buy a better apartment, but arrange for other ‘family’ to sublet the apartments and pay not only the government rent but rent to the now absent ‘owner’. This helped to explain in part the several Mercedes parked in the small parking lot next to the building we visited.
The apartment building complex includes a courtyard complete with markets for daily needs including fresh produce, meats, fish, and sundries. The typical resident shops everyday, and sometime twice a day, as their small apartments do not include space for a large refrigerator. The apartments are so small that the ‘facilities’ are outside on a narrow balcony and the residents dry their clothes by hauling them out on poles that also project from these balconies. There are schools and recreation facilities near by and until recently several factories. The factories for the most part have moved to mainland China to take advantage of the lower labor and facilities costs.
The last stop before lunch was a jewelry factory for which the routine by now was familiar: a quick trip through the ‘factory,’ in this case a few no doubt carefully selected employees working in a well lit and air condition space, which is immediately adjacent to the sales room where you remained trapped until the tour guide gets the signal that the next group of lambs is ready to be lead to the sales room. I think these factory shops are about the ugliest part of the tour as I am not into shopping for most of the typical items and slightly resent being forced into the sales rooms. But there is no pressure to buy, you can walk out of the shops and wait outside (sometimes just an alley way), and many people in the group do make purchases and enjoy the sales rooms.
Lunch was at a dim sum restaurant near the hotel. The food was fine and a little different from the now all too typical Chinese family style dinner. Also for once we were not severed enough for a group twice our size, so there was less self inflicted ‘need’ to eat way too much.
The rest of the afternoon was free time and we walked around a bit looking in the shops before returning to our room for a rest and to prepare for our farewell dinner.
The farewell dinner was held in a meeting room in the hotel and featured a multiple course gourmet Chinese dinner that must have cost and arm-and-a-leg. The highlight of the dinner was the entertainment provided by an expanded version of the OAT Flakes, which included me. Arnold Isenberg wrote a song as a tribute to our China guide Linda (Liu Feng) that was sung to the tune of children’s song called Bingo – “…had a dog and Bingo was his name, B-I-N-G-O …” Our wonderful guide was brought to tears by this very thoughtful, and quite inventive, expression of our thanks for her many kindnesses.
This was Labor Day for socialists around the world and the start of the Asian week long holiday called Golden Week. For us it was our last day as part of the Overseas Adventure Travel group. Early in the morning 6 of our group departed for 5 days in Bali as an optional extension of the trip and our China guide Linda departed in the early AM as well heading for home and her much missed baby daughter. We had said our goodbyes to all this folks at the conclusion of the previous night’s farewell dinner.
Our bus to the new Hong Kong airport was scheduled to depart the hotel at 3 PM, so we slept in late, had a leisurely buffet breakfast in the hotel and then did some walking about the back streets near the hotel. We returned in time to rest a bit and take another shower and change into our on-the-plane clothes which we knew would be covering us for the next 24 hours.
The bus ride to the airport and airport check in went smoothly. We found the Red Carpet Club, which was nearly empty and relaxed for about an hour before heading for the Air Canada departure gate and our 11 hour flight to Vancouver on a full Boeing 747-400.
We arrived in Vancouver on time and processed through US Custom in Vancouver. I had never heard of passing through US Customs in a foreign country, but I guess this is done because so many tours and especially cruises return to the US via Vancouver. The Vancouver airport is designed so that it can be converted from a combined domestic and international configuration to a all domestic (including the US) configuration. Thus once through US Customs were we in an unrestricted Canadian domestic airport. However all the duty free shops were closed, so there was no sneaking of Cuban cigars back to the US. We found the Star Alliance lounge, no sure if it was a Maple Leaf lounge or the other Air Canada and/or Canadian Air lounge, but it too was nearly empty. They provided free internet access so I was able to find the phone number for Wells Fargo Bank and order a new ATM cards and I also ordered a new battery charger via Thomason Distributing while online. I had enough time to also transcribe the Bingo song from the handwritten version to an electronic version for eventual distribution to the group via the email addresses included on the group contact information sheet we were provided near the end of the tour. Our flight to San Francisco was on time in departing and arrival. We picked up our reserved rental car (a Mazda Mini Van) and got home just before 11 PM, which made for a very long double May Day.