Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
We were a bit tired and jet-lagged when we arose at 7:30, but we pushed through. The hotel's breakfast buffet was actually pretty good, and we met Julia our guide promptly at 9am.
The Forbidden City was actually quite close, so the drive was short. We crossed the moat, entered the south gate, and walked through the entire thing. It's quite a bit larger than we thought - 72 hectares - and most of it seems to be unused at the moment. Parks, courtyards and waterways filled much of the area. The throne rooms were well preserved, and numerous with many for the emperor and empress, although we could not get very close to anything. The bedrooms and Emperor's study are also open for viewing. One wing was an exhibit of imperial clocks, which was mildly interesting. At the North end is a temple built ontop of a manmade mountain of limestone from 2000km away.
Julia explained the history as best she could, but did not impress us with her knowledge or presentation. The architecture, bright red color and decorative rooftops created a regal atmosphere. Mostly we marveled at the enamel painting everywhere, and the ornateness of the wood and stone carving. Lions and dragons seemed to be everywhere, in the stylized fashion of the time.
The place was packed with visiting school children. While Tom was in the bathroom, Louisa was approached by several children wanting their picture with a foreigner. She smilingly complied, and struck up a brief conversation with their teacher in English.
We spent several hours meandering through, ending up in the garden. After exiting the north gate, we met the car for the short ride over to Tiananmen Square. There, we saw the People's Assembly building, the Mao mausoleum (covered with scaffolding) and a giant picture of Mao on the Forbidden City wall. We walked across the square and into a building for lunch at a nice restaurant - just like a nice Chinese restaurant in any American city. The food was not that great, and we finished quickly.
Julia then took us to the Lama Temple, where we saw huge gilt Buddhas in various temple buildings. We were impressed by one that is 26m tall, carved from one giant sandalwood tree. Many people came to pray to the various Buddhas, and light incense sticks - the odor was sometimes overpowering. The temple was nicely kept up with lacquered buildings and statues of lions and turtles.
We had been promised a rickshaw ride in Old Beijing, but somehow signals got crossed, so we drove around a bit with Julia occasionally pointing things out. We were tired anyway, so we were grateful to return to the hotel for a short nap.
Julia returned at 5 (she had been shopping while we napped) to pick us up for dinner. We drove to the Daijiacon restaurant, and were there by 5:30 - a bit early it seemed, but we found out why when the dancers began. The restaurant features food, dancing, and music from the Yunnan province. The food was pretty good, and we ate nearly all of it as we watched. Then Louisa got pulled up for a bit of line dancing, to the amusement of all.
The driver dropped us at the hotel, and since it was still early, we did a bit of shopping at the local mall. Except for the signs, the mall could have been western. Louisa looked for shoes and shorts, but they don't make them big enough here. She did get a a couple of cute t-shirts, though. We returned to the hotel to send a few emails, and then journaled for a while before hitting the sack.
Tom had some trouble sleeping, so ended up finishing the new Harry Potter book (over 600 pages) at around 3am.
The Temple of Heaven was a huge place where the Emperor would go on the solstices to pray for a good harvest. Every stone seemed to have a purpose and a particular place except for the seven space stones supposedly delivered by aliens.. The colorful interior of the main temple followed the attractive style at The Forbidden City. We enjoyed walking through with about 10,000 other people.
After visiting the grounds a bit, we hopped back in the car and went to the cloisonné factory. We watched mostly women doing intricate work to place the copper and paint on the enamel for these ornate vases and other shapes. We then wandered through the gift shop and made it worth their while with a few small purchases.
Next stop was the Big Bell Museum, a former temple now turned into a display area for bells of all kinds. We saw some huge ones cast fairly recently (within the last 200 years), some really old ones unearthed in tombs 2600 years old and some played in unconventional ways. The building decorations were colorful and beautiful, in sharp contrast to the absolutely huge construction site next door.
We stopped for lunch at an excellent restaurant, and ate nearly everything in sight. Too bad we never saw the name.
After lunch we headed out to the Summer Palace. This was destroyed and rebuilt several times since its original construction in the 1400's and was most famous as the place where Empress Cixi imprisoned the Emperor Guanxu and ran the country herself. The place was absolutely huge, with a giant lake in the middle dotted with paddle boats and dragon ferries. Once again, the crowds were terrific as we jostled our way down the Long Corridor (nearly 1km) towards the marble boat. The breeze off the lake made the day a little cooler, but it was still humid, so we appreciated the air conditioning when we returned to the car.
Next stop was the nearby Yuanming Gardens, sometimes known as the Old Summer Palace. Totally destroyed in 1860 by the British and French, but preserved as a "monument to China's national humiliation," it is now a place where schoolchildren 'learn patriotism'. We took an obligatory picture and soon left - there's not much to see.
Julia asked us if we were interested in traditional herbal medicine, and when we said yes, suggested a stop at a herbal medicine clinic. On the way, we passed the "Silicon Valley of Beijing". Tom asked to stop for a few minutes, and we went into a huge bazaar of nearly every kind of electronic card and chip imaginable. Tom was reminded of the good old days 10 years ago in the States, when computers were built by hobbyists - China still seems to be in that stage. We didn't have much time, but if we had been able to speak Chinese, Tom could have spent hours there.
At the herbal medicine clinic, we sat down with a doctor, who explained that they do both traditional (herbal) medicine and open-heart surgery at the clinic. There was a bizarre demonstration of a martial art involving a man who passed 220v through his body and light a bulb, followed by him touching us to cause our muscles to tingle - like ultrasound treatment. Next was a checkup by a traditional herbalist, who felt our pulses and looked at our tongues. She couldn't find anything wrong with Louisa, but suggested that Tom had impeded liver and kidney function, and needed some herbs immediately. Of course, they conveniently sell just the herbs we need, and prescribe 10 pills each time, twice a day. Needless to say, we weren't that impressed, and declined.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at an ATM and got some money - amazing that it works even here in China. At the hotel, we asked again about changing to a room with a king bed, and again got a brush off. After relaxing in the room for a little while, though, the assistant manager came and helped us push our two beds together.
An hour after that, he returned to the room and told us that another person wanted a twin room, so we could switch with them to get the king bed. We hurriedly packed up (8 minutes - we're getting good!), and then went next door for dinner while they made up the rooms.
We had an excellent Peking Duck dinner at the hotel next door. We were the only westerners in the restaurant, and only one waitress spoke a few words of English. This made for an interesting and great dinner. Afterwards, we headed back to our new room. Delighted, we relaxed and journaled before bed.
We met Julia a little earlier today at 8:30 to drive out to the Ming Tombs. The traffic was terrible - definitely rush hour. During our conversation, we realized that Julia's itinerary listed taking us to the Great Wall near the Ming Tombs, while ours listed another location from our specific request to go away from the crowds.
Her office is conveniently located near the Ming Tombs in a building above a fresh water pearl factory, so we got a demonstration and tour while she went to the office. (We made it a very quick demonstration and sped through the sales room).
Shortly we drove by the gate marking the entrance to the valley containing the tombs. The buildings appear similar to those at the other imperial properties. Two side buildings contain the few treasures that were uncovered from Emperor Dingling's tomb. Then we joined the hordes of people descending the 9 flights of stairs into the tombs.
The appearance of the tomb shocked us. In Egypt we became accustomed to decorative buildings honoring the rulers. In contrast, the tomb reminded us of a giant bomb shelter. After winding through the five rooms with replicas of the coffins and thrones (both of his wives were buried with him), we returned to ground level. The view over the valley from the temple of the soul was beautiful. We could see the temples marking the other tombs in the valley, but noone of the others are open.
Next stop was lunch at a restaurant located at the back of a huge trinket shop. We had plenty of time for lunch and to shop. Only one item out of the thousands there tempted us - a porcelain laughing (big-bellied) Buddha with Chinese children hanging on him. All of their robes were brightly colored and every figure was smiling, which made it seem friendly and attractive. While slightly appealing, getting it home unbroken in five months loomed in our minds.
After an hour's drive winding through the lush Chinese country, we arrived at the Great Wall at Mu Tian Yu. We took the cable car up, climbed a few steps and were on top of the Great Wall. It was idyllic. Hardly a soul was around. After the thousands of people at the Ming Tombs we were certain they would be at the wall, but they went to the spot closer to the Ming Tombs, which meant that we were alone on the Great Wall.
We walked along as far as we could,, amazed at the construction along the top of the ridges of the mountains, and enjoying the beautiful green landscape. We reached a point with ladders and stairs that led straight up. At the apex we were on top of one of the lookout towers. It was magnificent. Amazingly, the unreconstructed part of the wall looked strong. Other than the bushes along the top, the walls were standing. This place is special also because the wall goes three ways from here.
On our return hike we met a Norwegian family who had seen us walk to the end. They were friendly and enjoyed learning that we had just been kayaking on the Sognefjord. The two of us hiked down the mountain on the path. We did not expect to find the Great Wall so magnificent and appealing, but it was a wonderful afternoon.
It took about an hour to return to Beijing where we ate dinner at the Temple of Earth (Denjin Park). One of the temple's buildings has become a restaurant. Then we returned to the hotel to relax, journal and read.
After sleeping in and eating our last hotel breakfast, we hit the street in a bee line for Starbucks. With our caffeine fix under way, we wandered through the streets. One block seemed to be completely under construction with huge skyscrapers. We walked along during break time when the dozens of workers filled the street. They squatted and shoveled food into their mouths out of plastic bowls.
We rounded the corner onto Wang fu jing and walked amidst the final preparations for a beer festival. Beer pavilions filled the sidewalks along with stages and beer company paraphernalia.
With time running low we stopped in McDonald's for lunch. It was packed with people. There was hardly room to wait on line. An Asian family next to us in line spoke perfect American English and we asked where they live. The Mom answered Columbus, Ohio. What a small world!
Julia delivered us to the airport time to spare, especially since our flight was delayed. On arrival in Chongqing we amused ourselves while waiting for our luggage with a group on the previous flight - they had at least 15 pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage for what looked to be 4 or 5 people. We wondered who they must be or if a rock singer was in town.
The guide in Chongqing filled the long drive into town by telling us the history of the city and province. The latter houses 30 million Chinese, with the city itself home to 8m. The city went on for miles and miles of tall bland buildings.
The hotel room was lovely, but the atmosphere seemed odd. We decided to eat in the hotel since our guide nor anyone at the hotel could recommend a restaurant in the city. They recommended eating off of the stalls in the street, but that did not seem appetizing. We went to the not-recommended restaurant in the hotel and were the only diners. We worked our way through ordering and were not sure what would appear. Fortunately a few edible dishes arrived.
Next was a quick internet stop in the hotel's business center before heading to bed.
The guide insisted that we leave for the boat at 7:15 which put us on board at least an hour early. Once more, we lucked onto a boat that had between 30 and 40 passengers.
They suggested we upgrade our room, but after viewing the options, we decided that the standard room would be fine, even though - alas - we could not push the twin beds together. The hardships we endure for this honeymoon, I tell you.
We explored the Victoria II a little, which was nice but nothing like the A&K boat we had in Egypt. For example, the sundeck was at the back of the boat, and had poor views forward and back, as well as no shade or comfortable chairs.
After an on-time departure at 9am, we passed the Jianling tributary and watched Chongqing disappear in the distance. Soon farmland lined the banks of the river where sampans and local fisherman filled the river.
Tom decided to attend a Tai Chi demonstration, while Louisa, who wasn't feeling very well, rested. Tom learned the first 6 moves of the simplified Tai Chi canon, and enjoyed it greatly. The slow motion feels good, and is more difficult than it looks.
Mid-morning we had a briefing on the boat, and met our cruise director, Louis - an odd character from New York who had spent the last 5 years in Taiwan. Then it was time for lunch.
Our lunch table was quite eclectic. We sat next to a Dutch couple living in Taiwan, and an Italian couple living in Switzerland. We also had a British couple and a French couple. There were no languages in common - the Italians and the French didn't speak much English. We chatted in Spanish with the Italians, while the Dutch folks conversed in French with the French couple. We did speak English most of the time, however.
After lunch we had a shore excursion in Fengdu, known as the "city of devils". Through a trick of language, one hill became known as the gateway to Hell, and ever since then tourists have been duped into visiting. We rode a rickety chairlift up the hill underneath a hotel in the shape of a person and were led through cheesy temples and colorful, grotesque statues meant to depict the road to Hell. Frequent ridiculous customs, like crossing a certain gate left foot first, would either add 20 years to your life, or determine your gender in a later life. We escaped as soon as we could, walked down the hill, and found a local market in the town. We tried a bit of shopping, and were gawked at by the locals - probably because we're tall and white.
Back on the boat, we showered and relaxed before the welcome cocktail party. The captain issued a stirring toast in Chinese, shouting and spitting into the mike, as Jonathan translated how welcome we are. We met a few more folks, and then headed down for dinner.
After dinner we retired to the top deck for a little break, before going down for the fashion show in the bar. The staff spent quite a bit of time and effort showing off fashions from many time periods, up to and including the present. Then it was bedtime for us.
We started the day with a session of Tai Chi and learned why millions of Chinese follow this custom - it is subtly invigorating. After breakfast we entered the first of the 3 Gorges, the Qutang Gorge. The combination of traveling down river at 17mph and the gorge only being 8 km long, we passed through quickly. The banks of the river in the gorge are attractive, covered in lush, green flora dotted with an occasional farm house and agricultural field.
At the end of the gorge is the city of Wushan. We transferred from the Victoria II to a [pic -r 2858 sampan] which carried us through the Lesser Gorges.
We spent the entire day on the sampan traveling to the end of the all 3 of the lesser gorges. The Daning river is narrower with steep banks that shoot out of the water which create natural beauty. We traveled upstream into the gorges, braving rather strong rapids that at times seemed that they might overpower the boat.
While interesting and scenic, talking with the other passengers was the main entertainment for the trip. The lack of village life along the river disappointed us, although we did see some kids swimming (and begging for money). The monkeys were cute, but we later found out that they are fed and protected because the tourists like them. We also squinted at a hanging coffin high on the cliff, and marvelled yet again at the tracker paths.
Back on the Victoria II we spent time on the front deck to view the next gorge, the Wu Gorge. It starts with a famous rock formation, the Goddess Peak, which challenged our imagination. We had a drink before dinner, and that helped. We did enjoy seeing the colorful pagodas, small waterfalls, caves, and side canyons along the way.
During dinner Louis, the cruise director, offered gifts to the birthday celebrations on board, and surprised us with a congratulatory honeymoon gift, calligraphy of a traditional Chinese sentiment said at weddings.
After dinner the cruise sponsored a show of local folk dancing. The theater was on the dock in Zigui, and we should have known as we entered what we were about to experience. The evening's performance was a weird combination of synthesized Chinese-inspired music with modern dance moves. The show reminded us of elementary school performances. At the first polite moment, we extracted ourselves and retired for the night.
The boat entered the Xiling, the third and longest gorge, at 6:30am. We drank coffee on deck while the river guide pointed out the features of the gorge, including a 2000 year old hanging coffin. Side streams poured clear water into the murky Yangtze.
During breakfast we drove through the 3 Gorges dam project, giving us a great perspective. After eating, we piled onto a bus and started the tour of the dam. The museum had a good model which was an easy way to learn about the design and size, but the rest of the museum, while extensive, was in Chinese except for one sign discussing the extensive preservation efforts for the Chinese Sturgeon. It seems they want to convey compassion for the environment which the huge construction site positively opposes.
The [pic -r 2926 dam] is massive. Even in the midst of construction its size is impressive. The numbers of workers varies, from 20,000 to 60,000 depending on who you ask, but it appears to need the latter. Construction cranes fill the sky above what will be the ship lift (large enough to take our cruise ship), the 5 stage lock for cargo ships, as well as the hydroelectric generating turbines. We could now see the reason for the frequent signs showing 175m above sea level - the reservoir high water mark.
The scenery down river from the dam changed, opening into a wide flood plain. More buildings fill the banks confirming the high population density and amount of industry that takes place along the Changjiang.
The next entertainment was passing through the lock at the Gezhouba Dam. We could hardly contain our excitement at the frequent announcements of who was winning the pool about exactly when the lock gates would open. We were impressed by the 25m drop, however, and couldn't imagine the almost 100m height differential in the 3 Gorges Dam.
Jonathon, the river guide, held an interesting session about the dam. Only a handful attended, which allowed it to turn into an intimate discussion about the relocation of the 1.3 million people and other social and environmental impacts. Again, we enjoyed a before dinner drink with our discussion.
Tonight's dinner was the captain's farewell gala. The chef cooked delicious dishes with creative presentations, and the captain made impassioned toasts in Chinese. After dinner the crew held a cabaret with fantastic renditions of traditional Chinese dances, including a Chinese dragon. The costumes and dancing were excellent and gave us a flavor for Chinese folk traditions. The American tour and the Brits each wrote their own creative songs about the cruise for the passenger participation part of the evening. Afterwards, the dance floor opened. We sat out the macarena, but we hopped on the dance floor for the few swing numbers that played and had a wonderful evening.
The boat continued to cruise down the Yangtze throughout the morning. We filled the time easily with breakfast, packing, journaling and talking to our new friends. The captain docked the boat as lunch was served, 2 hours early.
Our guide greeted us on the boat shortly after lunch, we said our good-byes and disembarked. The flight to Shanghai would not take off for 4 hours, so Arthur, the guide, offered to take us to some of Wuhan's attractions - for an extra charge, of course.
Wuhan is a huge, sprawling city of apartment buildings and skyscrapers that houses 8 million people. The cities of China appear similar - lots of concrete, covering extensive amounts of land with millions of millions of people. We rarely saw (as in perhaps a dozen) single family dwelling homes. Virtually everyone in China that we met, or that we observed, lived in a large apartment building. Rather than housing developments, such as exist in the US, China has apartment building developments filled with 10 or so identical 15 story buildings.
After deterring our guide from visiting a house of Chairman Mao's, we arrived at the Yellow Crane Tower on Snake Mountain (more appropriate would be hill). The name originates from an ancient legend about generosity being rewarded by the gods. The original building was erected in 223 BCE, but the complex has been rebuilt during the centuries, most recently in 1985 with the latest addition a large bronze Millennium bell.
Next we visited the wonderful Hubei Provincial Museum. It houses the artifacts excavated from the tomb of a 5th century BC marquis - not even a king. Much like King Tut's tomb, this one wasn't important enough to rob, and was lost for millennia, and gives important insights into daily life nearly 2600 years ago. Objects found in the tomb include cooking pots, eating utensils, decorative clothing, and perhaps most importantly, musical instruments.
We were most impressed by the fact that this tomb seemed to prove that musical ideas such as the 7-tone and 12-tone scales were known much earlier than previously thought. Also, techniques for bronze casting were much more sophisticated than anyone could believe. The bells alone were worth the trip, they were amazing to see.
At each stop we encountered other passengers from the ship and shared a fun camaraderie. In fact, four were on our flight to Shanghai. All of us were chatting away in the boarding area when an hour delay was announced, but the conversation made the time pass quickly. Kim and Steve had just traveled to Cambodia and Thailand and provided us with many travel tips. Also, we found out that we had missed the rock museum, which apparently was pretty good.
In Shanghai, we said good-bye to our friends, and met our guide, Jimmy. He took us quickly to our hotel, and left us to our own devices - he was not overly helpful.
We stayed in the Peace Hotel in Shanghai, the oldest hotel in the city. It is a beautifully maintained Art Deco building along the Bund, that was recently renovated. Our room was outstanding - huge, with a truly king-size bed, and a gigantic bathroom. Louisa could hardly wait to get into the pool-size bathtub.
The concierge secured a reservation for us at a recommended restaurant, M on the Bund. His directions were not great, but we finally found it and sat down to a fantastic meal. The chef prepared succulent beef and lamb that fell off of the bone. Awesome western food, topped off with a delicious warm chocolate cake dessert with banana ice cream. Just what the doctor ordered!
Back at the hotel, Louisa just had to take advantage of the huge bathtub and took a luxurious bath. Tom settled for a shower, and we happily drifted off to sleep.
Jimmy, the guide, showed up 45 minutes late which exhibited his skills at guiding. First stop was the Yu Gardens, a park filled with attractive, reconstructed pagodas. We enjoyed wandering in the grounds to see the ornate dragons and architecture. There were some nice water gardens with fish and interesting rocks. On the walk to the car, we walked along sidewalks lined with trinket stores offering tourist wares. The last one contained lots of electronic gadgets, so we stopped and found a new battery charger. Who would have thought in China? It is not quite up to specs, but Tom thinks it will work well enough.
We had at least an hour until lunch so Jimmy asked what we wanted to do. In response to every request he suggested either the jade or paper cutting factories. We succeeded in convincing him to drive through an area called the French Concession and point out one mansion. Then he drove us to the lunch spot, which fortunately was located on a main shopping street. We left Jimmy and the driver in the parking lot for some shopping. Louisa bought a pair of Chinese running shoes. They do not have the support of Nikes and Reeboks, but she is glad to have them. We wandered through some other stores, including a food store that contained an odd array of items before rejoining Jimmy.
He took us to The Gap Cafe which provided us with the worst food that we had in all of China. We saved the meal with Haagen-Daz ice cream cones that we bought across the street on the way out.
Next stop was the Shanghai Museum. Our tour included the audio sets, rather than Jimmy guiding us around, about which we were quite happy. The next two hours we immersed ourselves in the extensive exhibits, from bronze to porcelain, and culminating in amazing furniture from the Ming dynasty.
Once back at the hotel, Louisa broke in her new running shoes in the gym while Tom used the rowing machine. We showered and relaxed for a few minutes.
Jimmy picked us up at 5:45 for our early dinner, and took us to a nearby hotel. Again we were subjected to a mediocre meal, so we finished early and headed over to the theater to see the acrobats.
We were the first ones there, over a half an hour early. We browsed the cheesy tourist booths and waited for them to open the theater. We also ran into the tour of Americans that had been on our cruise - small country!
The acrobats were phenomenal. We were entranced as we watched them bound and twirl over each other and through hoops. The costumes were terrific, as well, and there was a bit of comic relief in between tumbling acts. The most amazing was a boy and girl of no more than 10 years, each of whom could perform incredible twisting jumps, taking off and landing on a 4in wide board supported by two men. The highlight was when he put her on his shoulders, balanced on the bar, and then did a flip. Incredible!
We got back a bit early, so we read and packed a bit before retiring.
With no more Shanghai sights to see, we were on our own for the morning. We decided to walk along the shopping street and see what they had to offer. Along the way the cruise director saw us so we chatted with Louis and another cruise director from a Victoria boat. The conversation covered many topics about Shanghai, Taiwan and China, all which ended in laughter thanks to Louis' sarcasm.
Louisa spied a TCBY store so we headed in for ice cream treats. This fueled us through a spin through one clothing store, where Louisa had great success, and a visit to an internet cafe in a Chinese book store.
Rather than eat more Chinese food we dined at Pizza Hut where we devoured a pan pizza.
The cab ride to the airport was incredibly short. In fact, we reached the airline desk before it even opened, so we played Boggle while we waited.
Our seats were fantastic for the four hours uneventful flight to Bangkok. On arrival we checked into taxi prices, but opted for the private car that was waiting curbside rather than the long taxi line. The airport was full of ATM's and a great tourist desk, so quickly we had all of the information we needed and headed into town. The Siam City hotel is nice with a comfortable bed that was calling our names since it was after midnight!
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on