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South-East Asia Ballroom Dance Cruise November 3 to 6: Of Beijing, Great Walls,Great Smog and Great Congestion

It is three in the morning in Beijing, the morning after I arrived. And I am wide awake, writing! So my smugness at how I planned to avoid jet lag was unwarranted - my body defied my planning. Air Canada 29 leaves Vancouver at 12:40 pm and arrives the next day in Beijing around 4 pm. You fly almost 11 hours and move ahead 16 time zones. That meant that a couple of hours into the flight after we had been served a nice lunch and most people in the executive class cabin had reclined their seats and gone to sleep, it was really only about three or four in the afternoon Vancouver time. Although I tried to shut my eyes and doze for a bit in the latter half of the flight, I really did not sleep. By the time we arived in Beijing at 4 in the afternoon GMt + 8 hours for my chrono-biological clock it was only midnight. So I decided I would stay awake till around 9 Beijing time, sleep till 6 the next morning, and wake refreshed and in sync with the new time zone. Didn't work.

Wednesday, November 4th, Beijing

It is a sign of the times that accompanying the immigration form that was handed out on the plane to be filled in before landing, was a health form questioning the presence of flu symptoms and exposure to the flu virus. As we made our way past successive booths of immigration, health and customs people, all the airport staff were wearing masks. I wonder how effective that is.

Beijing Airport is quite stunning. I think parts of it, especially the new International terminal were built in time for the Olympics four years ago. It is absolutely huge, all shining chrome and glass and very clean. The inner airport train that leaves every 3 minutes to take you to the baggage claim area seems to go for a very long time. I wonder what the actual distance is?

I had arranged to meet Raoul, one of the dance hosts whom I originally met on the  West Coast Ballroom Dance Cruise, at the Hotel Reception desk after customs and immigtration so we could share a cab to the hotel where both of us were staying. As it turned out when I talked to him to check flight times before leaving for the airport, another DAS guest Bernie was on his flight from Chicago to Beijing, and her room mate Joan would be coming in from San Francisco, so I will get to meet two of the other guests before we board the ship.

I had also connected by phone the evening before with my cabin-mate, Carol, who I previously met briefly on the  Labcur Weekend Get-away Cruise, but she will only be arriving in Beijing on the day of the cruise. The baggage area is also huge and everythiing is very clearly signposted. I saw my suitcase coming and managed to wrestle it off the carousel. While I was gathering my breath to heave it on to my baggage cart, an arm reached out and before I knew it, my bag was on the cart with my duffel bag on top of it. Another gallant stranger in a random act of kindness.- see London and Languedoc Travelblogue. I smiled and thanked him.

Incidentally, like in Vancouver, Beijing airport does not charge for the use of the carts. I wish the airports in the US would also get with it and stop that useless thing about a quarter to unlock the carts. I can understand it at some supermarkets where people steal the carts, but who is going to walk off with a baggage cart from an airport?

Anyway I met up with Raoul and Bernie, briefly met Joan. Both Joan and Bernie had transfers through Princess to the Marriott where they were staying. That left Raoul and I to take a taxi to the Beijing International Hotel. The cabs are quite small and with our suitcases, where could barely fit in. One suitcase and a bag ended up on the front seat next to the driver. It is quite a long ride in from the airport- cost 150 yuan - about 25 dollars roughly.

It was already quite dark when we got to the hotel.

The check in was quick and efficient and they changed our 100 yuan notes into smaller denominations. They told us that the breakfast buffet tomorrow was not included - our room rate through Orbitz was amazingly reasonable - $79 US a night so I was not surprised - and it would be 160 yuan or about 20 dollars. Hmmm... Raoul was anxious to find out about the tour that we had booked for Bernie, Joan, him and me next day so we accompanied the bell boy with our luggage up to our rooms. The tour operator called Raoul and told him that we would be picked up at 7:50 the next morning.

The view from my window was quite stunning. The rows of red dots in the picture above are car lights - you can see how packed the main street is. We decided to meet and wander across the road to see if we could get something light to eat before getting an early night. All we found were fast food joints so i had a duck and mushroom dish with rice. It looks better than it tasted! but it did the trick hunger wise.

I look forward to seeing more of the modern part of the city by day. The streets are wide, the glass towers high. Not what I expected at all actually. It has a totally different feel to what I remember of Shanghai and Hong Kong - but may be those have changed too since I was last there.

Time for sleep - it's 9 pm.

Thursday, November 5th, Beijing

Ping! 3 am and I was wide awake - still at least I got 6 solid hours sleep. The bed was firm and very comfortable. The room was warm though and the airconditioning seemed to be on heat not cool. When the temperature moved from 25 to 27 degrees I shut the system off.

There is also a characteristic yet undefinable smell that in a Proustian way immediately triggered memories of my accommodation a decade ago in Shanghai - sort of like a sewer miasma - and yet the room and bathroom are spotless clean. it seems to come out of the drains. Some times I notice in the shower in my second bedroom that if it has not been used for a while a similar odor emerges. Apparently the drain seals shrink if they dry out and the solution is to run a lot of water down the shower drain to rehydrate the seals. But I cant beliveve that's the problem here in a hotel. The shower  must be used frequently - one would hope!

The other thing I remember about Shanghai was the air pollution. Wakialo around it. Just like here.ngup every morning I would see the sun shrouded in smog with the reddish halo around it just like here.

Beijing - was previously called Chi, Yuchow, Yengjing, Chung0tu and Peking   in its various incarnations- the original site is over 3000 years old, and the city has been burnt and rebuilt as wars were waged between the Chinese and other invaders. For the past 700 years has been the capital city of China. It lies on a plain surrounded by mountains to the west and north.

The port where we will embark is about 2 hoours drive from the city. I always thought that Beijing was a huge city so I was surprised to learn that Shanghai, not Beijing is China's most populous city. Apparently the tag line for Shanghai is 20 million people and 50,000 shops.

By ten to the hour Raoul and I were waiting for the tour bus operator to pick us up at the hotel. Bernie and Joan would be picked up at the marriott which on the map is a couple of blocks away though somehow the driving always seems to take longer than expected. Anyway around 8 am the guide rushed up to us - she had apparently been waiting at the other entrance but had failed to metnion to Raoul that there were two entrances. Then we walked across the street to where the bus was parked - why they did not stop in front of the hotel is a mystery. We waited for ages at the Marriott - again when the rest of our group joined us they told us that she had led them a circuitous way around the hotel instead of coming out the door right where the bus was parked. Go figure!

Our group was small- a young couple from Ecuador, a man from San Francisco, an older couple - the man had difficulty walking fast, and a woman of 90 with her son - she was amazingly spry and although there was a bit of a problem as the tour guide would take off like a speed demon leaving the rest of us in her wake and the older woman and the man trailing far behind, somehow we all made it through Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City with the group together.

Actually I had quite a heart sinking experience. At one point as we were walking along the sidewalk toward the area where we would cross to Tiananmen Square one of the massive groups of Asian tourists streamed past our group and I got separated from the group. As the last of the horde passed I suddenly realized I could not see our guide, or Raoul, Joan and Bernie. When I got to the crossing area there was no sign of them. I could not see them ahead of me and looking back I could not see them either.

I have to confess that my heart sank into my boots and began to beat so fast it seemed it was trying to escape from my body. I had no idea how I would ever find them in the mass of thousands of people crowding the area, I had minimal cash for a taxi back to the hotel, and way of telling a taxi driver that does not speak English how to get there. Memo to self - and I should have remembered this from previous trips, always take a card from your hotel with you when you are in a country where you dont speak the language.

As more and more huge groups streamed by - speaking German, French, Spanish and languages that I could only guess at, I decided to retrace my steps. If they were not ahead of me maybe they were behind. So I walked back to the area where I had lost them. Our guide had a ridiculous small pale white flag that was not the easiest thing to spot. But fortunately she was also wearing a bright organge jacket and that was actually what I saw first. They had stopped, for reasons not clear to me, and I had just walked on. my feelings of panic were replaced by a mild guilt at having caused a problem - as I am usually "Miss compliant and keep up with the group" I felt a bit chagrined but hey - to repeat a somewhat notorious quote - "stuff happens".

Although everyone probably has heard of the name Tiananmen Square, which for me only conjures up images of the massacre of protesters in 1989, there really is not much to see. It was just a huge area crowded with groups of tourists and with two of the largest TV screens I have ever seen. we walked through the square and crossed the road to the entrance to the Forbidden City.

But first a pit stop was called for. Oh those toilets! although if you are lucky you may find a washroom that has a toilet with a seat - not that you would want to actually sit on one - the majority are the open basins in the floor that you squat over and pray that the stream goes into the basin and does not spill over the floor. It seems that a lot of people actually miss! The toilets reek of urine and you have to remember to carry your own little roll of toilet paper with you because there is usually none there. Thank heavens I have an infinitely expandable bladder and can minimize the number of these revolting experiences. Yes I know I am a spoiled Westerner with more than a penchant for comfort - alright, for luxury - but the penalty for having the good bladder function is having the world's most highly sensitive sense of smell.

Hmmm... wonder if the genes for bladder capacity and smell are linked. Maybe I would be a good subject for genetic testing in that aspect. So basically I can smell these toilets a mile away and by the time I actually get up close I would rather just feel my bladder gradually swell like a balloon than venture inside. Unless of course it is an absolute inescapable emergency. And then it is the only situation in which I invoke the curse about not being born a man! Well not the only situation - I sometimes get equally frustrated when I think about waiting for a dance partner to come into my life! It is so much easier for a man. On these cruises alone I must have met more than thirty addicted female ballroom danceers from all over, who all discuss the same thing. Lots of women dancers - where are the men?

Well after that little rant, is there anyone out there who would care to comment on squat toilets or ballroom dance partners as important issues in gender inequity? Back to tourism. Next our little group of 11 and the tour guide enered the Forbidden City where we met up with three people from India, who completed our tour group of 14. it turned out that that was what had our tour guide a but frazzled. Wondering if she would find them where they were supposed to be.

The Forbidden City lies on about 250 acres and encompasses palaces, courtyards and temples. It was the home of the "Son of Heaven" (China's emperors) fom 1421 to 1911. We walked slowly through the site which consists of a series of courtyards surrounded by various wooden buildings that housed the members of the empeors' courst - concubines, eunuchs, and I suppose his advisors. I tried to absorb what the tour guide was saying but her English was so poor that I think many of us gave up listening. So hopefully what I wrote down was fairly accurate.

Twenty four emperors of the Ming (1406 to 1644) and Ching (1644 to 1911) dynasties lived there. most did not survive beyond their fith decade. Three of the palaces were built during the Ming dynasty and three during the Ching dynasty. We walked through the courtyards from south to north, as she explained to us the significance of colours (red is lucky- yellow the Imperial colour).

Nine is the imperial number. There were nine animal figures on one of the roofs. The number of roofs on a buildingsignifies the degree of imprtance of the buildong with one being the least and three the highest importance. I suspect that the most interesting thing about the Forbidden City was that it was forbidden to the masses. Once anyone could enter, it just becomes a series of attractive buildings. Although maybe if our guide was a bit more fluent, or I had spent more time reading about it, there would have been things I would have observed that we totally missed.

After we exited from the site, we walked past the hge moat built around the City, to get back into our bus. we next drove for an hour to reach ChangPing county where we visited the Beijing Dragon Land Superior Jade Gallery.

Apart from some absolutely exquisite carvings and masses of jade jewellery, they had some beautiful marble vases.

Then we drove some more to a "traditional Chinese lunch" at Jindian Restaurant. Our group was divided between two tables - the four of us sat with the young couple from Equador and the three people from India, two of whom only ate the vegtarian dishes, while the third ate everything. It was interesting that the "traditional" lunch included a huge plate of french fries! Although some of the dishes were quite good, specially a braised eggplant dish, I have to say that the food I have eaten at various Chinese restaurants in Vancouver (example The Imperial Seafood Restaurant), and including the prlce I usually get delivery from, Golden Great Wall, is much tastier.

After a filling if not gourmet meal we all piled in to the bus for the part of the tour we were all waiting for - the chance to walk on The Great Wall.

it is about 3600 miles long and was built, starting over 3200 years ago, to protect against the Mongolian hordes and other invaders. The main tourist part is the highest point at Badaling, the most famous and well preserved section.

At its highest point it is 800 meters above sea level. We took the cable car up to 800 meters and from there it is a steep 80 meter climb to the highest point. Joan took the photo of me perched on the Hero's Stone at that point 880 m above sea level so I can prove I made it to the top.

  I got a picture of Joan and Raoul each on the Hero's stone.

The climbing part is in different sections, some very steep areas do not have steps and the mud at the sides made it very slippery.he sections where there were steps were also very uneven.

There was no unifomity to the height of each step. So it was quite awkward climbing up and even worse climbing down.

The last call of the tour was to a silk factory. Quite fascinating and they showed us the amazing tensile strength of the silk.

One of the pictures shows the girls stretching out each single section to form layers of a silk duvet.

It took forever to get back to the hotel- the traffic was highly congested. We went to talk to the concierge to find out about taxis for tomorrow. He could barely understand English - amazing for that job in an international hotel - but we seemed to sort of get through to him.

After we had had some time to relax and clean up, Raoul and I met at the elevator to check out the revolving tower restaurant  only to find there was just an expensive buffet and no a la cart. So we decided against it.

Then we checked out the two Chinese restaurants one Shanghai syle and the other Cantonese style food. we looked at the menus- both seemed to be heavy on the abalone. The menu item that caught my eye was the braised Towel Gourd! apparently its a vegetable of sorts - I suppose pumpkin-like? anyway even the Cantonese style restaurant did not have anything that looked remotely appealing so we gave in and went to the Rose Restaurant on the round floor where Raoul had some seafood noodle dish and I had mushoroom soup and a smoked salmon salad.

Friday, November 6th, Embarkation on the Diamond Princess

Joan and Bernie are on the Princess transfer from the Marrott with the ohers who took the hotel and transfer package. From the Beijing International Hotel Raoul and I are booked on a shuttle from the Holiday Inn to the port of Xingang so we have to take a cab to the Holiday Inn where we will meet up hopefully with Carrie, Greg, Brian and Craig - the rest of Wendy's staff for this trip.

We were supposed to call between 7 am and 9 am to confirm - but when I tried from my room calling the numbers on my Princess booking form, the first number was not in service and the second was for the Princess Hospitality Desk at the Sheraton and a rather snooty voice at the hotel switchbooard said "they not here - they at some other hotel.|" So much for that.

When I went downstars to get breakfast, there I found Raoul struggling to make himself understood by the concierge who apoke marginally better English than the man from the night before. I decided to try the breakfast buffet here even though it was very expensive- 160 yuans. my previousl experience with Asian breakfast buffets has been that they are quite impressive.

The place was hopping and it seemed as if every table was full both the smoking and the non-smoking sections. But the pleasant hostess led me to a back room that seated maybe 40 people at tables of 4. I got some coffee and then went out to check the buffet. When I got back she had seated another person, an Asian gentlemena, at the table with me but instead of seating him opposite, she gave him the seat next to me- uncomfortably close. He was consuming a noodle dish and after I had said  "good morning" and sat down again, I debated whether to say anything more. He had replied with a good morning so I knew he at least had a word or two of English. It turned out he was a prosecutor from Taiwan who was visiting for a legal conference. He was heading off to see the Great Qall today. So in the end we had quite a pleasant cnversation

After breakfast as I was returning to the foyer, Raoul was back at the concierge desk and managed to confirm that we were both on the shuttle from the Holiday Inn Lido, so I went back to my room to pack up. The plan was to get a cab to The Holiday Inn Lido and connect up with the shuttle. We asked for a taxi but the bellhop carried our bags to a big black car.

Raoul, naturally cautious enquired if this was a taxi and was told yes. Then he asked how much the ride was likely to be and was told 50 yuan. Since the concierge had said about 30 yuan he insisted we wanted a taxi and the bell hop obliged. After jamming our cases into the cab we set off on another of those interminable rides through the city where you have no idea whether the driver is actually going to get you to the pace you want to go.

But eventually we arrived at the Holiday Inn, and Carrie appeared. She had been staying there. Brian arrived shortly after, and then Craig - the fourth host on this trip, who I had not met before. We also met Jean, a cattle-ranching  CPA from Montana, a first time DAS guest, who had stayed at the Holiday Inn.

Despite the air of total disorganization, just be fore 11 am we were all herded on to two buses, after stacking our own bags in the luggage compartment, and then around 11 we set off for Xingang- or so we thought. Apparently the fog was so thick that the expressway to the port had been closed indefinitely and the traffic congestion was absolutely horrendous.

After our bus, with about a million other people in cars and buses, had waited in a lineup near the first toll booth for about half an hour, our guide told us that they had no idea when the express roads would open and they were going to try alternate routes to get to the port. She also had no estimate of how long it would take to get there.

Well it was quite an adventure. The driving is quite lawless and it is amazing that there are not constant accidents. People turn across several lanes of traffic, drive for a distance the wrong way up a street when they change their minds about taking a particular road. At one time there was a man in a red tunic sweeping the streets who did not budge as our bus bore down on him. Luckily the driver screeched to a halt just before hitting him. Our hearts went bam bam bam. It was so close.He just calmly moved off to the side still sweeping. I wondered if he actually realized how close he came to being squished.

The drive that should have taken 3 hours ended up taking 5 and a half hours. When we finally arrived at the port it was more absolute chaos. Seasoned cruisers said they have never encountered anything quite like that. There must have been about 50 buses arriving almost at the same time. The drivers were given numbers and were supposed to unload in an orderly fashion, but of course a lot of passengers decided to take things into their own hands and opened up the luggage compartments to butt in line so they could board quicker.

Finally it was our turn and we handed our heavy bags over to porters and got in line. I was in line with Brian. The perfect gentleman, he stuck my duffel bag on top of his pull-carryon case and dragged it up for me. After that things moved fairly well and by shortly after 6:30 I was up in the cabin, on the Dolphin or 9th deck. it is quite impressive. Very spacious, with a large sitting area and a large balcony.

When I signed up for this cruise it was originally because someone had dropped out and one of the other women needed a cabin-mate. As it evolved I ended up sharing a cabin with Carol, one of the women I met briefly on the Labour Weekend Getaway Cruise.

We both decided that for a cruise this long we really wanted a cabin with a balcony and with an unexpected upgrade, we have ended up with a very nice space.

On the bus I heard from Carrie, who is doing the organization for Wendy for this trip, that Carol, my room mate had a problem with her  flight and would only be boarding the ship in Shanghai. So I unpacked, trying to make sure that I was leaving an equal number of shelves and drawers for her.

 

Carrie had suggested we all meet for dinner so we drifted in in dribs and drabs. I was not very hungry so had a really light meal. Then we went to the Wheelhouse Lounge for some dancing. Not everyone had their luggage and dance shoes and everyone was tired so we mostly turned in quite early - relatively speaking. So this was an interesting and unusual start to the trip. Hope the rest goes more smoothly. We have a really excellent group of dance hosts in Greg, Brian, Raoul and Craig, and a nice small group of 11 guests, with Carrie to keep us all in line. It should be excellent fun.