Thursday, March 21, 2013

Day 73 - Trip Home

We woke up to another smoggy Beijing day, although not as bad as it was 2 days ago.  Our luggage had to be out in the hall by 8am for transfer to the airport but our ride wasn't until 12:45PM.  Our stay at the Fairmont Hotel has been very pleasant.   This is a 5 star hotel, so the room was excellent and service was great.  Since internet access was not free here and we were so tired after touring each day, I had opted to wait until now to upload my blog posts.  However, this was not to be.  Once I got online I discovered that email access was fine but blog sites and Facebook were blocked.   I would just have to wait until I got home to upload the last 3 days' entries.   Instead, since I had already paid for the time, I downloaded a large part of my podcast backlog that I couldn't get through the much smaller ship bandwidth.

We left the room a little early so we could get a light lunch before we left.  We didn't want have to get any more local currency for food at the airport.   There were about 6 other couples going to the airport at the same time as us, heading for 2 flights leaving around the same time.  We were warned that the trip could take anywhere from 40 minutes to 2 hours, depending on traffic, but we made it in under a hour.  The check-in process was a little different from what we are used to in the U.S.  We had to show our passports 3 times and our boarding passes at least 5 times.  It went something like this: 1) Show passport to get boarding passes and check luggage; 2) Show boarding pass and passport to enter secure area; 3) Show boarding pass, passport, and emigration card to Immigration Officer to get exit stamped in passport; 4) Show boarding pass to enter scan area; 5) Show boarding pass to get on airplane.   In the scan area the sign said to remove laptops and cameras, so I opened my carry-on and put these items in separate bins for the scanner and left everything else in the carry-on.  When the carry-on went through, the inspector pulled it aside and took our my iPad, 2 bags containing wires and chargers, my jewelry case, my headphone case and a coin purse for rescanning.  They were nice about it but that was much more than TSA ever does.

We were on a United Airlines flight from Beijing direct to Newark, business class so we had the fully reclining seats.  This makes it much easier to sleep.  This is the 3rd airline we have flown in with the sleeper seats.   The first time was in an Air Canada flight when we returned from Sydney to Vancouver in 2004.  The second was this trip's initial flight from Los Angeles to Auckland on Air New Zealand.  Each of these airlines has the reclinable seats configured differently.  Air Canada and Air New Zealand have the seats angled individually so each passenger can get up without bothering anyone else.  United has the seats in the standard side-by-side configuration so when I had to get up during the flight I had to wake Ray so I could get past him.  Air New Zealand had the best set up.  The flight attendant had to "make" the bed by unrolling a mattress and bedding onto the fully reclined seat when a passenger is ready to sleep, then take it up again when they want to sit up.  It's more labor intensive for the flight attendant and less flexible for passengers, but much more comfortable to sleep on.
Flight Path as displayed on cabin screens

The plane left the gate about 15 minutes late and there was a long line waiting for takeoff, so we took off an hour later than the published time.   They must have calculated that in because we only landed 15 minutes late.  Meal choices were not very good.  There were 3 choices - steak, a spicy chicken or a Chinese dish, and the steak was gone before they got to us.  We both got a few hours sleep during the flight by not reclining the seat completely.  Breakfast was simpler and better. 

Our main concern was that we had an hour and a half in Newark to collect our bags, clear customs, recheck our bags, and make our connecting flight.  I was amazed at how smoothly this actually went.  They sent the bags of passengers with connecting flights out first, on a separate carrousel from the rest of the luggage.  Ours were among the first to appear.  It all went so efficiently that we made it to our next gate with a half hour to spare.
Newark Airport Sunset

The last challenge was getting the Village Van for the ride home.  There were already 6 people in the van when we arrived.  When the driver saw us with our 5 large bags and 2 carry-ons, he almost had a coronary.  He didn't think he could fit it all in, but he did.  We were the last ones to be dropped off and got home about 1:45 AM. 

That was yesterday morning.  Since then we have been struggling with jet lag, trying to get some sleep but only managing a few hours at a time.  We picked up our 3 containers of mail and have sorted it into important mail, things to check when there is time, and direct recycling (catalogs).   All our computers needed software updates, we had about 7 loads of laundry to do,  no food in the house, and the registrations had expired on both our cars, so we had enough immediate things to take care of despite our semi-comatose state.  Last night we went to sleep at 7:30 PM and were both awake again by 2 AM, so today has continued to be challenging.  The goal is to stay awake at least another hour tonight.  

This will be the last post for this blog.  After this, I will go back to writing in my Life in the Villages blog.  At least until our next traveling adventure.

Day 72 - Last Tours

Tiananmen Gate Tower, Tiananmen Square
Today was our last day for touring in Beijing.  For a change we woke up to blue skies.  The wind had picked up last night and blew most of the pollution out of the city and out to sea.  It's nice to see what the city really looks like!

This morning we joined our tour bus again for a trip to Tiananmen Square.  The bus parked a block away and we walked through a tunnel under the road to cross the busy street.  Besides the buildings around the square , a very large screen has been set up next to the "Monument to the People's Heros".  This screen shows the tourist sites being promoted.  Our guide took us around and explained what the various buildings around the square are.  We did not go into any of the buildings, but the tour company sent a photographer to take a picture of our group on the square.  They sold the photos to anyone who was interested in a book showing all the places we visited over the last 3 days.  It was a really nice souvenir, so we got it.

Temple of Heaven
 Next we visited the Temple of Heaven.  This is a former Buddhist Temple that is now a museum and park for the Chinese people.  Our guide said only 8% of the population now practices any kid of religion today.   All throughout the grounds, people were playing games, doing Tai Chi, dancing or singing.  It was crowded and everyone was having a great time.  It seems like a nice use for this large open space.

 The original itinerary gave us free time on our own this afternoon, but the majority of people on our bus were not interested in shopping on our own.  Yesterday our guide suggested that, if enough people were interested, he would arrange an afternoon tour to the Birds Nest Stadium and the Summer Palace. Half the bus raised their hands, so he made the arrangements, got a price, and offered it to people on the other buses as well.   We came back from our tour this morning, got lunch at the hotel, then went back down to the lobby to join the extra tour.  There were 14 people from our bus and another 14 from the other 3 buses at our hotel.

"Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium
An hour bus ride took us to the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The Birds Nest is the beautiful stadium that was built for the Olympics and where the opening and closing ceremonies were held.  The Olympic Flame which was originally on top of the stadium proved precarious over time, so it was moved to a spot on the grounds, just outside the stadium.   We were able to go inside and look around.  They were in the process of cleaning up grass colored rugs and artificial snow that had been there for a winter carnival that is now held there every winter.  Only one of the big screens that were mounted above the stands is still there.  It was showing a video about the 2008 games on a continuous loop.  We sat in the stands for a while, taking photos before walking back to the bus.
Kunming Lake, Summer Palace

 Our next stop was the emperor's Summer Palace.  This is a series of buildings around a lake, with a temple high up a hill and a few other towers a little distance from the lake.  It was a very lovely site and there were loads of tourists there.  Of course, most of the tourists are Chinese or Japanese.  Our group stands out everywhere we go.  A few people from our group didn't want to walk too far here, so our guide showed them a place with a nice view where they could wait for us.  One woman sat on a step at the corner of a nearby building and later said she had a great time there.  Several people stopped to take her picture and one older gentleman kept staring at her and smiling whenever he caught her eye. 

Bronze Qilin
Most of the buildings had lovely bronze statues on either side of the entrance and interesting rocks set up in the courtyards..  There were deer, cranes, lions, as well as a few mythical creatures. A house built for the emperor's mother had small windows in all different shapes all along the wall facing the lake. so she would have a variety of views.  Plants were painted on the windows to add to the view.

We were in rush hour traffic on the way back to the hotel.  Traffic here is really bad - reminds me of New York City, but with lots of bicycles, motorbikes, and an assortment of unusual looking trikes mixed in.  Once back at the hotel we had a drink and a light meal at the bar, then headed up to pack.  Tomorrow we will be on our way home.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Day 71 - The Great Wall

Part of the Way up the Great Wall Stairs
We had a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel this morning, then boarded the bus at 8am for the drive to the Great Wall.  The spot along the wall that we went to was really beautiful.  Too bad the smog marred the view.  The bus took us quite a ways up the mountain to where only 3 towers were above us.  I made it just beyond the first one and Ray was able to climb the stairs to the second.  As you can see from the photos, there is a long steep stairway to the top.   If the stairs were even it wouldn't have been too bad,  Each of the stone steps was a different height and they are well worn by feet, wind and rain, so they are all different angles as well.  I was proud to have made it as far as I did.

Our buses took us to lunch at a different restaurant today.  Did I mention that there are 9 buses of Regent passengers on this post-cruise tour package?  That's about 300 people.  We take over each restaurant we go to.  Today's lunch was served in the same way as yesterday, but the dishes served were each a little different and, in my opinion, better than yesterday's.
A Little Further Up

After lunch we went to the Ming Tombs.  This is a very large area where the Ming Dynasty emperors were buried.   These are very large and are miles apart, so there was only time for one. We only visited the oldest tomb complex, the Changling Tomb. which takes up  about 120,000 sq. meters.   This one was the mausoleum of Chengzu, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who died in 1424.  His empress, Xushi is also buried here. 
Entrance to Changling Tomb
Emperor's Statue with Money Offerings

There are 3 main structures above ground and the actual mausoleum is at the back underground.  The largest, center building is now a museum. As you walk in there is a bronze statue of the emperor in the center.  Chinese people view the emperors as gods, so they often throw money offerings at the statue.  There is a large pile of bills at the foot of the statue.  Among the other artifacts in the museum are 3 of particular note.  One is the emperors crown - a cap woven from threads of solid gold.  The second is the empress' crown, which is made from pearls and blue bird feathers.  The third is a display of Ming vases, one of which is the distinctive blue pattern.

This was another day with a lot of walking and we were tired, but we had one more event on the schedule.  After a 2 hour rest at the hotel, we went out to dinner with the entire group, at what is supposed to be the best Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing.  There were photos on the wall showing various world leaders dining there.  We had another great meal and learned the proper way to eat Peking Duck.  The meal even finished with Duck Soup.

Now for a good night's sleep before our last full day of sightseeing tomorrow.

Day 70 - Beijing, China

Forbidden City

For the first time in 66 days, we will not be sleeping on a ship tonight.  We checked out about 9am and boarded a tour bus for our post-cruise excursion to Beijing.  There are 32 people in our group, led by a Chinese guide named Ben. It took about 2.5 hours to go from the port to a hotel in Beijing for lunch.

Gold Lion with Paw on Ball = Power
Part of that was a stop at a highway rest stop.  This was a challenge for most of the women in the group.  I don't want to be crude, but feel this is worth explaining for my friends who have never encountered this situation.  Asian toilets are not the same as in most other areas of the world.  They are not a seat, but instead consist of a porcelain hole in the floor.  It takes a little practice and balance to squat instead of sitting, especially when you are wearing slacks.  I have gotten fairly adept at it, having encountered these on a number of tours this trip, but most American women are reluctant to try, especially older women.  There is usually only one western style toilet in a women's restroom, designated for handicapped.  Consider 16 women per bus and 3-6 buses in the rest area at the same time, and it is typical for a long line of women to form waiting for that one stall.   You can tell who is brave and who is not by how long it takes a woman to get back to the bus.

Lioness with Paw on cub
Carving in Center of Emperors Staircase

The scenery on the ride to Beijing interested me.  In the area near the port they are working to reclaim swamp land and build a technology center.  Beyond that were farms and large fields where trees were planted in neat rows.  I didn't see any natural forests, only planted ones.  Either the natural growth was cleared for the entire distance from the port to Bwijing or this may also be reclaimed land.

I was apprehensive about lunch after my experience in Foshan, but today's lunch was a pleasant experience.  The serving style was the same, but the food was much better.  Chinese restaurants have round tables set for about 10 people, with a lazy susan in the center of the table.  One by one, various dishes are brought out and placed on the lazy susan for everyone at the table to help themselves.  There were cherry tomatoes, broccoli, and cold chicken & ham to start.  Then they brought out a pork, green bean & mushroom dish; a sausage dish; kung pao chicken; sticky rice; some fried vegetables; corn/egg soup; and of course, tea.  For dessert they brought out a dish of little oranges.  It really was quite good.

After lunch we got back on the bus and drove to the Forbidden City.  The bus couldn't get close, so we were dropped off a few blocks away and had to walk in.  Once inside, we continued to walk through this massive complex for the next several hours.  Our guide said our walk was about 2 miles all together.  This is a fascinating place and I wouldn't have missed it, but we are both aching tonight.  At least our group was good at keeping up.  We had instructions on what to do if we lost our guide, but everyone stayed together.  Our guide actually helped 4 couples from other groups get back with their guides along the way, so other groups were not as lucky.

The tour company arranged our hotel check-in while we were touring and our guide had our room keys when we got back on the bus.  He handed them out on the ride to the hotel, so when we arrived we were able to go straight to our room without stopping at the desk.  When we got to our room, all our luggage was there waiting for us.  It had been sent by truck directly from the ship to the hotel.  Three agents were set up in a conference room a little later in the evening to get our credit cards for incidentals and that only took a minute.  What a great way to handle check-in. 

There are 3 restaurants in the hotel.  We picked the steak & seafood restaurant for some familiar fare.  It turned out to be gourmet and we had a fabulous (if a bit expensive) steak dinner.  Now we are full as well as really exhausted.  We need a good night's sleep before another full day tomorrow.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Day 69 - Tianjin, China

Sunrise over Bohai Bay, China
Our ship arrived in the Bohai Bay off the Yellow Sea early this morning and sat waiting for an hour or so for the pilot.   He must have been early too because we got into Tianjin Port about an hour earlier than expected.    There is a thick smog haze over the area, as expected.   I have masks for us, in case we feel like we need them.  This area suffered from very high pollution, so I'm not taking chances.

This port is about 2 hours southwest of Beijing.  There is what appears to be a fairly new passenger terminal here.  We went out to it looking for currency exchange this afternoon, but of course the office was closed.  It was probably only open for a few hours when we first arrived.  We did not schedule any tours today because we are leaving tomorrow on what promises to be an intense 3 day tour in and around Beijing.  It is cold here, but at least there isn't any snow.  I think it got into the 50's today.  There is rain in the forecast though.  I hope that doesn't make the tours over the next 3 days difficult.  We have been very lucky so far on this grand voyage.  We are also crossing our fingers that the weather doesn't delay our flights home.   We are flying Beijing to Newark and then connecting to a Newark to Orlando flight next Tuesday.

Our main objective today was to pack. We took turns so we could each have room to spread our suitcases out on the bed.   I went first and got my original 2 suitcases plus a new one we picked up in Hong Kong packed with my clothes and all the souvenirs we've picked up along the way.  It only took me about 3 hours!  Ray then started packing his 2 suitcases.  As I write this he is still working on it.  This is not counting our carry-ons.  It's going to be interesting managing all these at the airports.  At least we won't have to worry about them until then.  Once we put them out of our room tonight they will be picked up and sent to our hotel.  We won't see them again until we get to the hotel in Beijing tomorrow night.  I don't know whether we will have an internet connection there, so if you don't see another post for a few days, don't worry.  I'll keep writing and catch up the posts when we get home.

We went to the Italian restaurant upstairs for dinner last night so we could say goodbye to the members of the crew we've gotten to know there.   Tonight we'll eat at the restaurant downstairs to do the same with the waitress Riski and assistant Tegue,who have been so good to us there.  It has been a standing joke with these two that they can predict what we are going to order, especially Ray.  The crew on this ship has, on the whole, been really great.  Friendly, helpful, patient, and always smiling.  We will miss them.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Day 68 - Dalian, China

Last night was a bit rocky.  It wouldn't have been too bad if I hadn't pushed myself yesterday to keep up and see everything on the tour.  Between walking for 3 hours on the tour and getting a chill in my back from the wind when I got back to the ship, I was feeling a few aches and pains last night.  Combined with the ship movement on rough seas, I didn't sleep well.  Ray still feels like he is on the verge of a cold too.  The tour we had scheduled for today was just a bus ride with photo stops and an hour of shopping at the end, so we decided to save our energy for Beijing and not leave the ship today.

Last night we stayed in our room up until dinner time so we could watch the ship go out through the locks. Although the area can have tide variations up to 10 meters, the difference in the water level in the lock this time only appears to be a foot or so.  We missed the crew show by watching the locks, but we'll see it on the DVD.  Ray & I may be a bit unusual, but we both enjoy watching the technical aspects of cruising.

We must have been distracted by the locks because didn't realize the night's attire was set as "optional formal." Every other time we dressed up, Ray in his tux an me in a long black dress with a different formal jacket each time.  We didn't realize we were a little under-dressed until we were at the restaurant and saw most of the others in formal.  We were OK, but since we like to dress up, we were a little disappointed that we forgot to check.   Mishap continued, as Ray tried to cut a carrot on his plate and the knife broke in half in his hands, blade separating from handle and flipping back at him.  No harm done, but it did wake him up.  Our assistant waiter, Tegue, made our night however, with some jokes and a little magic trick.

We didn't get into port until 11:30am and will be leaving at 7pm, so it's a short day.  I took a little video as we came in, but there were no photos of note.  Dalian is a city that has Chinese, Russian and Japanese influences.  It is not a real old city, so the sights are mostly modern parks, bridges and buildings.  There is nothing near the pier for us to visit and we would have to take a shuttle to get into the city on our own.

We listened to Sandra Bowern's lecture on "The Art Forms of China" and checked the news this morning.  One of the perks we have had on Regent because we have cruised with them for so many days is delivery of a newspaper to our room every day.  We choose the Miami Herald and have been keeping up with the world with that and BBC news on TV.  We were pleased to see that a Jesuit from Argentina has been chosen as the new pope, and that he chose Pope Francis I as his new name.  When reviewing the newspaper summary of the credentials of the top 15 cardinals, he was in my top 3 choices.  He has a big job ahead of him and I pray he has the strength for it.

For some reason we left port an hour earlier than what was in the schedule.  The show was scheduled for 6pm so everyone must have been on board early and the captain decided to get a head start on our trip to Beijing.  He usually comes on the PA system to tell us what's going on but he didn't tonight.  We're guessing he didn't want to interrupt the show.  Anyway, we are now on our way to our final port of call.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Day 67 - Inchon (Seoul), South Korea

Houses in Korean Folk Village
I woke up about 5 o'clock this morning, sensing a change in the ship's engines.  When I first looked out, I saw the ship appeared to be in between 2 piers.  Half asleep and confused, I went back to bed.  Then I felt the ship moving down instead of horizontally and remembered that the captain said something about going through a lock.  I got up to look again and saw that the ship was moving out of the lock and into the harbor.

Guardians Keeping Evil Spirits Away

We had breakfast in our room again so we could get to our tour on time.  Ray felt like he is coming down with another cold and decided to stay on-board, so I went on by myself.  It was very cold out today, probably in the 40s, with wind on the pier making it feel worse.  Today's tour was to a "Korean Folk Village."  It was about an hour bus ride from the ship.  This turned out to be a replica Joseon Dynasty village, something like Williamsburg, but without the actual craftsmen in the buildings.  Each building was outfitted with artifacts representing a local craft and some had dummies dressed in period costume.

There are various shows staged every hour during the day, demonstrating arts of the period. When we arrived, the Farmers' Dance had just begun.  This was a combination of traditional music, dance, and juggling.  The music of Korea is not on the top of my list, but the dance was fun to watch.

Farmers' Dance

 We then took a walk and the guide showed us the building that would have been the court.  She told us about the various punishments that would await someone who committed a crime.  Some were similar to European stocks.  There was also a jail with dummies in the cells.  They all wore a long board on their necks with only a hole for their neck.

Our guide then took us back to the show area to see an equestrian show.  Riders brought their horses into a circular arena and performed various stunts.   They were very good.  It's hard to explain so you'll just have to wait for my video.
Equestrian Show

Next we had time to visit a set of buildings that would have been the home of a wealthy man.  Near the gate there was a small one room building for servants.  All the buildings were only one room deep, and all were entered through a door facing the central courtyard.  Moving clockwise around the courtyard, the first building was for the husband.  There was a bedroom and a study.  The kitchen and storeroom appeared to be next.  At the back of the courtyard were the rooms for the wife, husband's mother and children. They were heated by a fire built in a room to one side, with the heat directed under the floor to the rooms next to it.  The buildings on the opposite side of the courtyard from the husband's rooms appeared to be more storage.

The last show we saw was a reenactment of a traditional Korean Confucian wedding.  This was an interesting ceremony.  It was narrated in Korean, so our guide explained it to us before the show and we just had to try to follow along.  Two women assisted the bride in getting up and down.  They have no chairs, but squat when they are at rest. The "priest' was in the middle and two attendants stood at the sides to assist, bringing cups to the bride and groom to drink from.

Korean Wedding Re-Enactment
Our guide explained that up until recently, couples often never met until the wedding day.   Men were king in their house and women were kept in the back rooms to limit their exposure to outsiders.  She said that much of this is only now beginning to change.  She was probably in her 30's and had only been married 3 years.  She said at first her mother-in-law called every day, telling her what a good wife she was for her son.  One of the obligations of a new wife is to cook a meal for her mother-in-law, so a few weeks after the wedding she invited her mother-in-law to dinner.  After dinner, her husband began helping with the dishes and her mother-in-law got very upset.  Our guide said her mother-in-law did not call again for months.  Now after 3 years, she has begun to accept that today, because both husband and wife work outside the home, the husband helps with household chores.  She accepts outwardly, but not in her heart.

We saw another building after the wedding, which our guide said explained how they make kimchi.  There were large pots around it that she said the kimchi was stored in for up to 3 years.

Kimchi Preparation & Storage
On the ride back to the port, our guide talked a little about the situation between North and South Korea.  SHe said many South Koreans are on the list requesting to visit relatives in the North, but ply 200 are allowed to cross the border each year.  South Korea is on high alert since Kim Jung-Un made some serious threats a few days ago.  The U.S.A. and South Korea are also conducting military drills this month.  Things are just a bit tense in this area at the moment, but when we asked our guide about it, she said this is pretty normal for them.  North Korea makes a threat or does something to provoke them every couple of years.  So far South Korea has kept their cool.   From what I heard in Dr. Elovitz's lectures and other things I have learned on this trip, North Korea seems like a petulant child throwing an occasion temper tantrum to get what it wants.  It doesn't have enough food or natural resources to survive and recent U.N. sanctions are hurting them.  At any rate, I will be glad when our ship is away from these waters. 

It's about 5pm now and we should be leaving the pier any minute now.  The captain announced that the seas are going to be a bit rough tonight, so they postponed the show with the ship's dancers until tomorrow night and are putting on a comedian instead.  The crew show is still scheduled as an early show at 6pm though.  I hope we aren't out in the rough waters yet when they are on the stage.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Day 66 - Along West Coast of South Korea

We were at sea again today.  Once out of Japanese waters we finally got internet access back.  Everyone on the ship must have been online this morning.  It took about 3 hours of off and on connections this morning to publish the post 63 on Hiroshima.  I waited until after dinner to upload the posts for days 64 and 65 and they went much quicker. 

This morning we had a safety drill.  New rules require ships to hold a drill every 14 days on cruises that are more than 14 days.  This segment is 16 days.  The drill is the same as when you initially get on the ship - instructions on how to use a life jacket and what to do in an emergency evacuation.  That took up about an hour after breakfast.

This afternoon Ray went to Dr Elovitz's final lecture on "World Affairs Hot Spots."  This was a question and answer session, not a presentation.  While he attended that, I sat in on the last art auction.  This one was very lightly attended, but there were a couple of new artists discussed that I was unfamiliar with.  I always learn something at these.

Nothing else to report today, other than the fact that I finished another book this morning.  I have finished 5 books on this cruise in my spare time.  Usually I am so busy with other stuff it takes me several months to finish one.  Limited internet access and other distractions can be good.  I do love my Kindle.  On past cruises I use to bring several paperbacks and leave them in the library for someone else's enjoyment when I was done.  Now all I need is my kindle.

Day 65 - Along Coast of Japan

We left Osaka about 4 am this morning.  Today and tomorrow we are at sea.   Originally the ship was scheduled to stay a second day here, but the captain received some information about the currents that made him cut our time in this port back.  A 4 am departure is unusual though.  I woke up when the ship started to move and looked out to see what we are doing.  The ship was just turning around to head out of the harbor.  I took a little video of the lights along the shore and went back to sleep.

After breakfast we went to hear the next lecture in Dr. Elovitz's series on "World Affairs Hot Spots."  This one was titled "North Korea Before and After Kim."  He put North Korea's actions and threats into perspective, based on history combined with the little we really know about North Korea.  The fact that we will be visiting Seoul the day after tomorrow is a little scary in light of recent events.  One of the tours offered is actually to go see one of the tunnels North Korea has built under the DMZ.  We are not going on that tour! 

Dr Elovitz's lectures provide an insightful view of the motivations that drive various countries to act the way they do.  He presents the facts in what appears to me as a very neutral way, but in a way that really make me think about U.S. foreign policy.  I don't think I've really understood much of this before and feel like my eyes have been opened quite a bit. 

This afternoon we attended another of Sandra Bowern's lectures.  This was "An Introduction to South Korea."  Where Dr Elovitz talks about political issues, Sandra talks about culture.  She touched on Korea's history, noting that the penninsula has been inhabited for at least 500, 000 years.  Mostly, she talked about Korean music and other art forms.  She played a few short clips of the various music styles and I have decided that this is probably my least favorite Asian music.

We purchased the DVD's that the ship's videographer put together for each cruise segment and have spent our free time today reviewing the first 2.  They are good because, for the most part, the videographer seems to have gone on different tours at each port than we did.  Many of these were tours that were listed as the most strenuous, so the DVDs are  giving us a chance to see the tours we couldn't go on. 
Towel Dog Created for Ray's Birthday

Day 64 - Osaka

Shinto Shrine
 It was a 22 hour trip from Hiroshima to Osaka.  We arrived about 12:30pm and tours started leaving by 1pm.  Our tour didn't leave until 2:20pm, so I had time to get some local currency for a change.  Unlike most of the recent ports that don't accept U.S. currency, Osaka sent an agent on-board to change money.  That has been one of the problems with the Asian ports.  Most do not accept U.S. currency and only large stores accept credit cards.  Most of the stores at the port are small, temporary vendors who only accept local currency.

Footbridge to Shrines
Place to wash before praying at Shinto Shrines
Cats in Shrine for Business Success
Saki Kegs to be offered to the Thunder Kami
It was raining today so we were debating on whether to go on the tour or not.  The rain slowed to a drizzle before our tour time so we finally decided to go. We are very glad we did.  Our tour was to the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine. At previous ports we saw Buddhist and Taoist temples, but this was our first chance to see a Shinto Shrine. 

The Shinto religion is only practiced in Japan.  Although translation of these concepts is hard, my understanding of what our guide said is this.  Shinto practitioners believe in 8,000 gods or "kamis."  These relate to the forces of nature. There are kami of the sea, wind, trees, lightning, thunder, etc. The shrine we visited was originally built to pray for safe passage on the seas.  However, over the years people began coming to this site to pray to all the other kami too.  It got very crowded near the one shrine so they built additional buildings for the other gods. 

Although burnt down and rebuilt several times over the centuries, there has been a shrine here for over a 1,000 years.  I believe the current buildings date from the 19th century.  We only visited a few of them.  Our guide showed us how to pray for a safe voyage to the imi of the sea.  We also visited a tree shrine and a shrine for businessmen praying for success in their business.  A common theme for business success throughout Asia is a statue of a cat.  Having one of these in your business is supposed to bring the money in.  The ones in this shrine were stationary, but in other Asian countries they all had one arm that moved up and down, waving the money in.

We had two treats while visiting this shrine.  When we first walked in we found a group of children playing traditional drums.  Our guide explained that they were practicing for an upcoming competition.  We got to stay and listen to the a few minutes and they were great. 
Children practicing for Drum competition

The second treat was that we encountered a Shinto wedding ceremony and were able to take a few photos of the bride and groom.  The groom was dressed similar to the groom we saw in Hiroshima yesterday, but the bride was dressed very differently.  The Hiroshima bred was dressed in a colorful, elaborately embroidered kimono, while this Osaka bride was dressed in a white kimono and had on a distinctive hat.  I wasn't able to ask the guide why the difference, but plan to ask Sandra Bowern if I get a chance.
Shinto Wedding Procession

Today was Ray's birthday, so we had reservations at the steak restaurant onboard, "Prime 7."   After an excellent surf and turf dinner, the waiters brought Ray a cake with one candle to blow out and wished him happy birthday (without any embarrassing singing).  Birthdays and anniversaries are also announced on the ship channel on TV and Ray received that birthday wish this morning.  When we got back to our room, the room attendants had decorated the room with a happy birthday sign, balloons, and a towel dog.  Ray really liked that and went out to find the attendant and thank her.

After dinner we also had to check in with Japanese immigration again.  This was our last port in Japan so they collected our shore passes and stamped our passports with exit stamps.  The ship's crew then collected our passports again.  So far, Japan has been the most stringent in immigration requirements of all the ports on this trip.  Our next stop is in Seoul, South Korea, so it will be interesting to see what they require. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Day 63 - Hiroshima

Hiroshima Streetcars, a collection of old and new
We arrived in Hiroshima at 7am this morning.  Since we visited China in between Okinawa and Hiroshima, we had to go through Japanese immigration again. The immigration officials came on board with the pilot before we docked so they could start processing us early.  The cruise director called us by tour number and floor to go into the theater, pick up our passports and immigration forms, have our photo and fingerprints taken again, and see an agent who checked our paperwork and stamped our passports.  It took about 2.5 hours to process everyone and no one could go ashore until everyone had been stamped.

Peace Bell

After immigration we went back to our room to wait to be called a second time, to join our tour bus. There were only 2 tours offered today "Highlights of Hiroshima" or "Miyajima."  The second was to take a ferry to a nearby island with a famous shrine and shopping, so we chose the first one.  We are glad we did.  It was a good tour. 

Riding through the city there are streetcars everywhere.  Our guide said they are like a streetcar museum, buying old cars from other countries.  The first stop was at the Peace Memorial Park and Museum.  This is a beautiful park built near the epicenter of the atomic bomb strike.  At one end you can see the remains of a building that was partially destroyed.  At the other end is a museum documenting the effects of the bomb.  In the middle between the two there is a flame that they say will continue burning until all nuclear weapons have been eliminated. The flame is at one end of a pool.  The other end has a concrete casket containing the names of all the people who died because of the atomic bomb.

View from casket  of names to Peace Flame
The park has a number of monuments that our guide took us to, mostly paid for by private group donations.  One was dedicated to a little girl who died of leukemia at age 12 after being exposed to the atomic bomb as a 2 year old.  Her classmates raised the money to build the memorial.  Another monument was dedicated to schoolchildren who had been conscripted into service for the state near the end of the war because there was a labor shortage.  Many of them were working outside in Hiroshima that day.

One of the few buildings left standing after bomb hit
The museum was heartbreaking to go through.  Dioramas showed what Hiroshima looked like before and after the bombing.  Both the immediate and long term effects on the people are documented and graphically shown.  There are lots of photos and a few artifacts.   I asked our guide how long it took before the radiation levels were low enough to come into the city and she said that it was gone by the next day.  The first day, the main problem  was the heat.  Everything was burning at such a hot temperature that it melted the teal girders in the buildings.

Children's Memorial

After we left the museum we went to the Shukkeien Garden.  This is a lovely garden around large Coy ponds.  The garden was once part of the grounds of the Hiroshima Castle.  The leading distributor of Coy fish donated 200 of them to this garden.  It was a lovely, peaceful way to spend an hour.  Near the end we had a pleasant surprise.  A bride and groom were having their wedding photos taken in the garden and our guide asked them if they would mind if we took their picture too.  They consented and all the photographers in our tour group got photos of this nice couple in traditional Japanese wedding attire.  What luck!

Japanese Bride, Groom & Family in the Park

Our guide gave us a paper folded crane as a parting gift.  This is a traditional good luck symbol.  Since all the tours left around the same time this morning, they all arrived back at the same time too. The result was a long line to get back on the ship.  It took about 10 minutes to make it through the line.  We had already invitation to attend a traditional Japanese Kagamawari ceremony at 1:45PM in the ship theater, but arrived on board after it had an begun.  In this ceremony, a sake cask is broken with a mallet as a traditional acknowledgement of important guests.  We stood in the back and arrived just in time to see the mallet being struck.  At the end they distributed paper cups of the sake to anyone who wanted to taste it.  I got a cup and gave Ray a taste.

The ship left port about 2:30PM, so we have the afternoon to rest.  We can sleep late tomorrow because we don't get to Osaka until afternoon.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Day 62 - Northeast on the East China Sea

This will probably be the last entry I will be able to upload for the next 3-4 days.  We are on our way to Japan and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Japan blocks the satellite frequencies that the ship needs for Internet connections.

We are resting today to recover from all the activities of the last 3 days and prepare for touring Japan.  We will be in Hiroshima and Osaka during the next few days, before moving on to Seoul, South Korea.

I did a load of laundry this morning, then went to a short lecture on pearls.  They had a contest to see who could identify the fake pearls out of 3 necklaces on display.  Of all the entries they picked one out of the box for a prize.  I picked the correct fake pearls but did not win the raffle.

As usual on a sea day, there were 2 lectures on the activity list.  We went to Dr. Elovitz's  lecture this afternoon called "The Thirst for Water (not Oil) & Looming Flashpoints."  North America consumes more water per person than any other area of the world.  In the U.S., we consume an average of 570 liters (150 gallons) per person per day, while the average consumption per person for the entire world is only 100 liters.  I  wonder what it would take to reduce our consumption down to that level.

Sandra Bowern gave a lecture on "The Historical Culture of Japan" this morning.  We woke up late and didn't make it on time so we watched the replay of it on TV this afternoon.  She illustrated her talk through Japanese art, touching on samurai, kabuki theater, sumo wrestlers, geisha, courtesans, poetry, and the art itself.  I wish I wasn't so tired, I would have appreciated her talk more if I wasn't dosing.  Ray's eyes were closing too.  When I finish this I think I am going to join him in an afternoon nap.

We have plans to meet 2 other couples for dinner tonight.  These are people we met in Auckland at the beginning of the cruse who are also getting off in Beijing.  We have seen them sporadically through these 2 months, but this will be the first time we've spent planned time together.  It should be fun.

Day 61 - Goodbye Shanghai

MagLev Train Approching Station

MagLev Train
This was our third day in Shanghai port.   We weren't scheduled to sail until 1:30 pm, so we had time for one more short tour.  They offered a ride on the MagLev train this morning so we signed up.  For anyone who doesn't know, MagLev stands for magnetic levitation.  There are only 3 trains of this type in the world, one in Germany, one in Japan, and this one in Shanghai, China.  

It was about a 45 minute ride from the ship to Longyang Road station.  The train only travels a short line, between this station and the Shanghai Pudong Airport.   It is an 8 minute ride each way to cover the 30.5 km (18.95 m) run and reaches a top speed of 431 km/hr (268 mph).   There are 2 tracks, with a train running every 15 minutes each way.  When the train on the other track passed us, several people tried to take a photo, but it went so fast there was no chance.  The train left the station at 10:15 and it took us about 3 minutes to reach to maximum speed and another 3 minutes to decelerate.

After this round-trip thrill ride,  we got back on the bus for a trip to the Jin Mao Building again.  We visited this tower on our first day in Shanghai, but it was included in today's tour as a ride on the fastest train combined with a ride on the fastest elevator.  I don't think I mentioned the other day that it takes 45 seconds to travel to the observation deck on the 88th floor. 

We came to the tower from a different direction this time so we got to see a different part of the city.  I liked this sundial sculpture that is located in the center of a roundabout.

We hesitated about going up in the tower again because it was another foggy day, but finally decided it was better than sitting in the bus for 45 minutes waiting for the rest of the group.   We had a nicer day yesterday, but of course, no tours left the ground that day.

Jin Mao Building

Our ship left the pier on time this afternoon, but we did an unusual maneuver getting out.  The captain actually backed the ship down the Huanpu River for the first mile before turning the ship around.  I guess there wasn't enough room for him to turn the ship around until we got that far down river.   We had 2 tug boats following us down the river until we got to the wider Yangtze river.   I understand that it will take until about 8pm to get to the mouth of the Yangtze and back into the East China Sea. 

Tomorrow we have a day of rest - a day at sea.  We are both tired out from the past few days so we are ordering dinner in the room tonight.  We'd like to go to the show, but I'm not sure we're going to make it.  After dinner and a bottle of wine we are probably just going to fall soundly to sleep.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Day 60 - Shanghai and Zhujaijaio

Water Town of Zhujaijaio
Today has been a really good day!

We had to get up early this morning to join an 8am tour.  This one was called "Ancient Water Town of Zhujaijaio," and was one of the best tours we have been on.  The guide was really good.  He talked about the Shanghai area for the first half of the 1.5 hour drive out of Shanghai, then let us enjoy the countryside once we were out of the city.  During our walking tour of the town he stopped to explain the town's history and the merchandise in the shops.  He also made sure no one got left behind in the winding streets and gave us hits on where to meet him if we did get lost.  (No one did.)

Only Covered Bridge in Zhujaijaio

Largest Bridge in Zhujaijaio
The town is built around man-made canals.  Our guide explained that, just like we build railroads and highways today, for this culture, water travel was important.  They dug out these canals to tie them to the rivers and built their homes and  shops along the canals.  It looks like a small, Chinese version of Venice.  There are only a few towns like this left and the Chinese government is encouraging the people to preserve this town as a tourist attraction.   They may have modern conveniences inside, but have to get permission for any external changes. 

We walked past all the shops where vendors sold food, household goods, crafts, and tourist souvenirs.  Our guide took us into a Chinese Traditional Medicine Museum and explained how the Chinese doctors would diagnose ailments and prepare herbal medicines, and how the patient would use the medicines at home.  He said that every Chinese city still has a place to get traditional medicine. 

We also visited the ancient post office.  Originally, this was only used by nobility, but now it is a full post office for the local residents.  This also had a museum upstairs and he explained how the postal system worked in ancient times when few people could read or write.  They would dictate their message to a person at the post office and the message would be read to the recipient by someone working at the receiving post office.

Chinese Canal Boat

"Gondolier" steering our boat
After walking around town for about an hour, we had a half hour on our own for shopping.  Despite the language difference, bargaining with the vendors is not a problem.  Each one has a calculator.  You pick something and they enter the price into the calculator and show it to you.  You can then take the calculator and enter a lower price.  They will then counter with another number.  In this way you can almost always get the price down.  I bought a lovely little wooden fruit basket that is cleverly designed to fold flat, making it easy to pack in my suitcase.

The last event in our tour of the town was a boat ride on the canals.  The boats are something like the gondolas in Venice, but wider so that passengers sit on benches facing each other.  The boats are also easier to get in and out of.  They are steered from the back with a long paddle, just like to gondolas are.  No singing though.

We were surprised at how much the outskirts of Shanghai has been built up.  Factories and high-rise condos have been built far out of the city and many more are under construction.  Our guide said that many people are coming into Shanghai from the provinces, and it is obvious why.  The work is here.

Pearl TV Tower at night

Both last night and tonight the upstairs restaurant opened early with a Mediterranean buffet because there were evening tours to see Chinese Acrobats perform.  We had tickets for tonight's show.  It was a little over a half hour bus ride into the city to get to the show.  Our guide led us to really great center seats.  The show was simply fantastic - sort of like a Cirque de Soleil.   Our guide said that the troupe we saw are the best in China and are celebrities here. It it very hard to explain what we saw in just a few words, but these are very talented acrobats.  In addition to the physical feats, the finale was a show of motorbikes zooming around inside a globe.  They started with one and added another every few minutes until there were 7 bikes all running inside the globe.   It was crazy good!  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed.

Shanghai Night Skyline

To top off a wonderful day, it was a clear night.  When we got back to the ship we headed up to the 12th deck to take photos of the Shanghai skyline Our ship is docked across the river from the main city so we have a great view.   We made it just in time too.  At 10pm chimes rang from somewhere and all the lights began to go off.  We have been very lucky!