This is a 16 night cruise within a 21 night trip. We start in Beijing and the north and sail south to end in Bangkok. The area and the itinerary are shown in the map above, from the Princess Cruise Lline web site.
The first thing on my mind on my return to Vancouver from the South Pacific Dance Cruise: Hawaii to Polynesia was getting my visa to visit China. Beijing is where I will embark on the Diamond Princess for 16 dance- filled nights and days while cruising from China to Thailand. And I only had two weeks to get ready.
"Another dance cruise?" you may ask - "you are almost turning this into a profession". And rather than blush and confess that I am now a confirmed dance cruise addict, I will loftily refer you to the explanation for this new tendency towards globetrotting on moving dance floors. It can all simply be blamed on last year's New Year resolution to develop spontaneity. Well that is my story and I am sticking to it for the rest of the year.
But back to the visa. I had my passport photo ready and my plan was to go Monday morning to the Chinese consulate visa application office and apply. I figured that would give me a few days lee-way if it took longer than I expected.
My friend Susan told me "you have to go early" but I figured if it opened at 9 I would let the lineups dissipate and get there a lttle later. So Monday morning I took my time and strolled into the Visa office just after 10. The place was absolutely jam packed with people, occupying every seat on the rows of benches and also lining up outside. I asked the man at the desk where one gets a number and he just laughed at me.
"We've given out all the numbers for the day" he says.
So I asked him what time do you have to be there to get a number. "Well" he says,"when I get there at 7 in the morning there is already a line-up. Ok so Susan was right- why did I doubt her?
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.
After dinner on our first night of sailing, tired though everyone was, we were determined not to miss even one evening of dancing so we headed off to the Wheelhouse Lounge to dance for an hour or so and then we had an early night. Dancing would start in earnest the next day with the first of our dance workshops in the morning, and then a full evening of dance in the evening.
Saturday, November 7 - Of Foxtrot, rhumba and dance parties
Dance-wise this first full day at sea kicked off, so to speak, with two dance workshops. We met at 9 am in the Wheelhouse lounge where all our workshops will take place. The floor is slightly larger than the one on the Pacific Princess and alright for a group lesson with a small group.
In this group there are no beginners. In fact all the women are quite good dancers and the age range I suspect is much narrower than on previous cruises I have been on. So in our group we have 9 fit, active, dance-crazy women guests, Bernie, Carol (who is not yet on board),Helene, Kim, Joan, Jean, Linda, Marcie and me, one couple, Julia and Harry, and the hosts, Brian, Craig, Greg and Raoul.
I have noticed that sometimes when there are couples in the group the men dont dance with any of the other women while the wives dance with the hosts, which alters the one-to-three ratio but Julia and Harry are just great. They are a delightful couple, fit right in to the group and Harry cheerfully dances with all of us. Unusually, in this small group, four of the 16, me, Helene, Julia and Harry, are Canadians. We joked that we were almost ready for a Canadian takeover.
Anyway I digress from the workshops. Greg ran the first hour teaching an foxtrot sequence. Everyone picked it up really quickly. Then Brian took the second hour to introduce a rhumba sequence that gave us an opportunity to work on cuban hip motion, rhumba walks and spiral turns. Both workshops went really well. In this small group it was easy for people to rotate in and out and we all had a turn to practice.
We all love our dance hosts. They have really strong leads, are a pleasure to talk to and are like energizer bunnies - they just keep going, dance after dance. I guess it makes their job easier when they have dancers that they don't have to drag around the floor. In fact of the group, I think I have probably been dancing for the least amount of time, and because most of my training has been in the International Standard and Latin, I have only learned the basics of some of the dances in the past few months- since May in fact - so I think I am doing pretty well considering.
But because these guys are so easy to follow I can usually do most of the patterns they try and the rhythms are pretty simple so I feel quite comfortable now with dances like the hustle and night club 2 step and I am definitely finding it easier to follow more complicated moves. Just gotta remember to count "don't hop, two, three," for the syncopated hustle and it feels much smoother and easier. I am still not mad about salsa- need to go to some salsa dances back in Vancouver to get better at it and I still have to get my Argentine Tango lessons with Carlos back on track. But first I have to be back in Vancouver long enough to get back into my regular dance and fitness routine.
Although I find I am having a lot of fun doing these American style social dances, I guess realistically it is mainly because of the chance to dance with so many excellent partners. I still love the discipline and formality - if that's the right word to describe it - of the International style. I hope to be able to do my gold level routines in Standard and Latin sometime next year but although I really love my dance lessons, without a regular dance partner I just dont get the opportunity to practice - or just to dance for enjoyment.
The ship docks in the port of Shanghai but the distance from the pier to the city may vary from a half to a one hour drive depending on the size of the ship and where it has to dock. The Diamond Princess is a big cruise ship and has to dock quite far out. The city spans the Huangpu river, a tributary of the Yangtze River.
Wednesday, November 11 Okinawa, Japan. Scheduled arrival 7 am and departure 2 pm
The picture is from formal night. it has no connection to Okinawa but it's a nice picture and I have no pictures from Okinawa. Here's why...
Five days into the cruise and I find myself less than enthusiastic at the thought of getting into yet another shuttle bus or excursion van with a crowd of people. Realistically, at home I normally have a lot of quiet time to chill out by myself, andnon-stop "togetherness" is something I am no longer used to. In fact I must confess that I have come to value times ofsolitude in my apartment - me, myself and I looking out over the waters of False Creek, reading, writing or just thinking about life.
That's a long winded way of getting to the fact that I really had no interest or energy in going ashore in Okinawa and in fact made a positive decision to stay on board, have a dance lesson with Brian, get a massage in the Spa and just relax. I know that Okinawa was of historical importance during the war and have avgue idea that there was a major battle there between the Japanese and the Americans but it had not much relevance to me.
I had my usual breakfast, fresh fruit with low-fat yoghurt, coffee with a little cream, and then went out onto the balcony of the cabin and worked for a bit.
I had a lesson with Brian scheduled for around 11 am. Greg had found a small carpeted bar area down the stairs at the back of Club Fusion that no-one seemed to use and it was ok though not great for lessons so we went down there. We worked first on West Coast Swing swing, then briefly on the hustle and then Bolero.
With WCS the things I was really trying to get right were the right arm hold,so that the tension/connection feels right; and not letting my other arm droop or flail. I guess that's what you call styling - I don't get it!. We also worked on a couple of new steps. He showed me one which if I have it right is step, step, point right leg, step back, step, step, triple step, which I kind of liked, and then a few more patterns. Hopefully if I get a chance to dance a WCS - it is pretty random with such a variety of dances - I will be able to follow a lead through these steps. The problem of course is that if you dont get a chance to repeat these things they dont stick and each time it is like starting again.
Thursday, November 12 Keelung, Taiwan -scheduled to arrive 9 am and leave 6 pm
The Diamond Princess traveled from Okinawa on a west-south Westerly course through the East China sea to the place where she would board the pilot who would take the ship into Keelung. The port of Keelung is about 18 miles from the 100 year old city of Taipei.
The first thing that struck me about the island of Taiwan was how green it was. Taiwan is a large island, just under 14,000 square miles, lying in the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles east of mainland China. Previously known to the Portuguese seafarers as Formosa (the Beautiful Island), Taiwan is densely forested and subtropical, one of 79 mostly volcanic islands that are now claimed by China to comprise the province of Taiwan. A Central Range of mountains, with several peaks rising over 10,000 feet, runs down the island. Most of the 22 million inhabitants live to the west and south west. Farming, mainly rice but also sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans and sugar cane, is an important part of the economy, although Taiwan is noted for its industrial activity and manufactured exports. Made in Taiwan!
It was actually quite fascinating watching the Diamond Princess dock. There was what seemed to be a very small space between two large ships that this mega-ship had to get into. I thought it was a great example of parallel parking and sent a picture to my theatre buddy to tell him that his place as world champion parallel parker had to be ceded to the captain of this ship.
But then he pointed out that the captain was probably aided and abetted by a tug boat which nudged the ship into position. So his title is still secure.
Impressed by the greyness of the weather, while I was reading about Taiwan on the web and in the great brochures from Princess, I got distracted by the terms monsoon and typhoon. I had this vague idea that the terms were interchangeable and meant big wind with lots of rain. But no!
With apologies to those of you who paid more attention in geography class than I did, it seems that - to quote Wikipedia - "A typhoon or hurricane is a regionally specific term for a tropical cyclone." So a tropical cyclone that arises in the NorthWest Pacific Ocean west of the dateline is called a typhoon. If it arises in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Pacific Ocean east of the dateline, or the South Pacific Ocean, it is called a hurricane.
And what is a tropical cyclone you may ask? Well to paraphrase - it is a storm system with a large low pressure system that forms over tropical or sub-tropical waters, with thunderstorms producing strong winds and heavy rains that cycle counterclockwise in the Northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. A monsoon on the other hand is a seasonally reversing wind that reverses direction and degree of rainfall with the season.A simpler definition is that of a wind from the southwest or south that brings heavy rainfall to southern Asia in the summer.
I knew that! Somewhere inside my brain that information lurked but my retrieval system is faulty.
The Diamond Princess picked up the local pilot around 5:30 in the morning and was docked in the Contaiiner Terminal by about 7:30. Although it was warm and humid it was still grey outside.
The consensus among those of us who had planned several excursions together was that in Hong Kong we could manage fine without taking an organized excursion. I remembered feeling quite comfortable travelling around when Bob and I had visitedHong Kong years ago, and again when I spent a few days there on my way back from Shanghai.
So Bernie, Jean, Joan, Raoul and I met in the atrium at around 9:15 and by 9:30 we were on the bus shuttle heading from the Pier into Kowloon - about a forty minute drive.
From our drop-off point we found our way to Nathan Street and at a HSBC bank we drew out cash and changed it for Hong Kong dollars. Then we wandered off to the street market where I acquired a great back pack with a detachable smaller back pack, with wheels for about 19 dollars (Canadian not Hong Kong dollars). The HK dollar is about 6.8 against the US dollar.
I am really bad at bargaining - I always feel bad about beating them down even though I realize the original prices are reallymarked up but Raoul helped by encouraging me to "walk away" and so I got it for considerably less than the marked price. Amanda is going to have to work with me on my acting skills though before I try much more in the way of bargaining.
We were amused by a bakery display. When we took pictures a woman came running out and shouting- no pictures! but here they are.
We then walked down Nathan Street in the general direction of the Ocean Terminal where we wanted to catch the Star Ferry across to the Hong Kong side of the harbour. It costs 2.5 HKD (about 1 dollar fifty) to buy a token for a one way trip across to HK.
November 17 to 19, 2009 - Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)
Unlike Hong Kong which I had visited on several occasions, where I found that most people could speak some English and many were fluent, Vietnam was an unknown for me. I had never visited the country before and did not feel comfortable trying to get around by myself. As well the ship was to dock quite a distance from the places we were to visit.
So Joan, Bernie, Raoul and I had all signed up for a tour in Nha Trang. Later Jeane and Carol decided to take the same tour.
The ship anchored off shore from Nha Trang, a small town in the south centre region of Vietnam, with fishing as its primary industry. The warm waters and white sand beaches also make Nha Trang a favorite holiday destination.
Tuesday November 17, Nha Trang
Our group met at 7 am in the Princess Theatre as the tour was scheduled to start 7:30 and we had to tender ashore. Our "sampler" excursion itinerary included the Ponagar Cham Tower, the Buddhist Shrine at Long Son Pagoda and a visit to see how Vietnamese silk picture embroidery is made.
Nha Trang was originally the centre of the Kingdom of Champa that ruled the area from the 2nd century to the 15 century AD. They were defeated by the Ly Dynasty who founded the independent state of Vietnam. The south, central and northern areas of Vietnam are now one country with a population of over 83 million people, and governed from Hanoi in the north.
After we tendered ashore we got onto buses for the short drive to Nha Trang. We stopped off to see the Long Son Pagoda with its massive white statue of Buddha. We were inundated by hordes of people selling everything from postcards to fans and prints. It was actually quite uncomfortable as they get in your face, begging you to buy stuff. I actually ended up buying some really attractive prints.
I find it fascinating that though Buddhism is supposed to be a non-theistic spiritualism, Buddha has almost it seems been elevated to a god and places seem to vie to see who can have the largest Buddha statue. Something seems a bit odd with this picture. Not my photo of course!
Next we stopped at a beach restaurant called something like Nha Haru Bia Tua Louisiana which translated into Louisiana Brewhouse!
This was a refreshment stop where we were presented with coconut milk in a coconut shell. For me it was sour and astringent and I just had a few sips.
There was lots of time for us to walk along the beach and we enjoyed the fresh sea air. Raoul got to demonstrate his skill as dance partner.
Then we piled back into the buses for the drive to Ponagar where we were to visit the Cham Tower.
The bus let us off on the far side of a bridge over the Cai River Estuary which we walked across in single file. This gave us an opportunity to look down on the fishing boats in the bay before we followed our guide up to the Towers.
Thursday November 19, The second to last day of just cruising at sea and the third formal night for dinner
We were quite tired after the long bus rides yesterday and the humid weather did not help. We decided to go the breakfast in the room route before heading up to the Wheelhouse lounge for 9 am.
Greg was doing a hustle workshop first. Then instead of the planned West Coast Swing class by Brian, they decided that Greg would review some of the things he had taught, and on the next sea day, Brian would do the WCS class and review his lessons with us.
I was quite pleased that Greg reviewed that chacha pattern - I think I got the swivel parts - although I did not always feel the lead into that step but the "da da", swivel, swivel timing had me confused and it is a really cool move. Anyway by the end of the review I think I had the timing right on it. Now I need to have a chance to put it into practice.