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.