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.