Archive for October, 2009

Hong Kong – October 13 & 14

HONG KONG, CHINA - JUNE 26:  A bird rests on p...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Hong Kong – October 13 & 14

Day 1: The city that never sleeps! We sail into Hong Kong at 5:30 am and of course our ship has to dock at the Hong Kong International Terminal which is a very busy container pier, because we are too large for the cruise port. We are bused to busy Kowloon, Harbour City – fashionista haven, for the day which was hot and muggy.
We decided to head to Macao, so after much consultations with several locals, found our way to the Harbour City Ocean Terminal to board the hydrofoil to Macao. It was an hour ride through the 260 islands surrounding Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland. As Reg has never been to Macao and we didn’t have much time I decided to take a quick hour tour hitting the main attractions I had visited before.
The driver first drove us to the ruins of St. Paul’s. This church, built in 1602 was destroyed by a fire in 1835. The only thing that remains is the facade which functions symbolically as an altar to the city and the “Acropolis” of Macau. Beside it is the Mount Fortress, built in 1617 and was the city’s principal military defense structure. Looking down from these ruins, we have a stunning view of old Macao, taking in the old Portuguese city with it’s narrow cobblestone streets along with incredible skyline line of new Macau in the background full of lavish casinos and an incredible bridge linking Macau & Mainland China.
Our next stop is the A-Ma Temple which existed before Macau came into being. It has variety of pavilions dedicated to the worship of different deities. It is a representation of Chinese culture inspired by Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and folk beliefs. Our last stop is St. Anthony’s Church, first built of bamboo & wood in 1560 and reconstructed in stone . It is one of the oldest churches in Macau. This also marks the site where the Jesuits set up their earliest headquarters in this City.
Our guide then dropped us of in Senado Square, the most popular venue for events and celebrations. This square is surrounded by pastel coloured neo-classical buildings, all with a Mediterranean look. We poked down alleyways until we came across a little alley restaurant and sampled some freshly made dim sum, enjoying the culture of this tiny city. We headed back to the ferry terminal to catch the hydrofoil back to Kowloon.

In Kowloon, hot and exhausted, we quickly took a walk down Canton Street, one of the ritzy streets of Hong Kong with your Cartier, Louis Vuton, etc stores. A street where one just window shops. This took us to the waterfront and a nice quiet walk along the promenade, taking in the skyline of Hong Kong, the harbour with its daily activity of boats, sampans, tenders, ferries, etc. We then headed back to the ship as we wanted to catch the Symphony of Light. Between 7 & 8 pm our ship moved from the H.I.T. Terminal through Victoria Harbour to moor in “Junk Alley”. We stood at the front of the ship just below the bridge and watched as it slowly made it’s way through the harbour when the Symphony of Light began. This is the largest light show in the world and best viewed on an open deck. A nightly orchestrated light, sound and laser show featured on 37 key buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbour. What a phenomenal and memorable site!

Day 2: As the ship would sail at 5:30 pm we had a early start to cover ground we missed yesterday. Our day was an adventure on the local transportation system which took us to many areas of the island of Hong Kong. Thank goodness for the Octopus card, a smart card that you load up when you buy it. It has an rfid chip and all the transportation links have a reader by the fare box – no need for exact change, what a great idea!.
Our first trip was to the Stanley Market, a myriad of shops that sell everything. The ride to Stanley was quite an experience watching our double decker bus maneuver its way up a steep, narrow road with lots of hairpins bends, passing spectacular venues such as Repulse Bay with it’s beautiful beaches and resorts (home of Hong Kong’s elite), and Deep Water Bay. Stanley is a tourist market , but the material for sale is of a very good quality and worth it.
After Stanley, our next bus ride took us to Aberdeen, a picturesque village, home to thousands of “water people” who live aboard their junks and sampans and where the famous Floating Restaurant is also located. Time was running out and we needed to head back downtown, so caught another couple of buses to get to Victoria Peak which is 1805 ft above sea level and the highest point on Hong Kong Island. Along the way Amanda really wanted to get out to explore many of the traditional Chinese market streets that just went on and on.
Unfortunately the weather wasn’t in our favour today, therefore the normally spectacular view from the Peak was a tad hazy but all the same it gave us a perspective of Hong Kong harbour. Worse though, Victoria Peak has become a major tourist trap with a huge building with 5 levels of escalators and tourist shops on each level before one gets to the top of the peak viewpoint. How things have changed in 40 years from when Amanda was last in Hong Kong….the trials and tribulations of progress! We took the Funicular down from the Peak and made our way back to the ships tender on another bus. So much to see….so little time! This town deserves four or more days. Also it really is one of the most expensive cities we have ever been in!

Okinawa (Japan) and Keelung (Taiwan)

Taipei City
Image via Wikipedia

October 10 – Okinawa

Our next stop was Okinawa, part of the Ryuku Island group located at the southernmost part of Japan. Invaded by the Americans in 1945, it was the last island taken before the final assault on the Japanese home islands. It still has a very strong American influence here. Famous for it’s pottery, colourful fabrics and numerous types of Awamori (health tonic) alcohol (some containing a large habu snake coiled in the bottle). Its also boasts the highest longevity numbers in the world especially for females. Diet, lifestyle and community support all contribute to this. Okinawa, as a city was quite underwhelming. As our time there was quite short (3 hours), we took a stroll downtown and took in some of the markets. Lots of public markets, undercover, that stretch for many blocks, with everything you can imagine for sale. We also found very good pottery shops, all products made in Okinawa and quite striking. But, since Japan is a first world country, it has prices to match and therfore bought nothing.

Oct 11 – Keelung, Taiwan

We wanted to avoid another big city (Taipei) therefore decided to plan our schedule around the port of Keelung which had enough venues to keep us busy for a day. Unbeknown to us it rains in Keelung 230 days a year and guess what……it was pissing down with rain when our ship docked (look out Michael, I’m coming after you when I get back!). Anyway, we made the most of the day trying to run between rain drops.

Our day started with a brisk walk uphill with Alan & Cecilia from Texas (who lent us a much needed umbrella), via a narrow alleyway and steep stairs which took us to the Hall of Zhong Yuan Ceremony. A beautiful building which exhibits historical artifacts and relics. Seeing that we were already drenched we decided to keep on trucking but Alan & Cecelia decided to call it quits and headed back to the ship. We headed down another narrow pathway to Martyr’s Shrine. This shrine is dedicated to the heroes of the Republic of China and the War of Resistance against Japan. Then down some more steep stairs which took us back down to the town area where we came across the Jile Temple (“Jile” meaning “welcome”). Another beautiful temple with 8 Buddhas surrounding the interior. It was our lucky day as a Chinese guide (with help from a female monk) volunteered to show us around and explain the various features and significance of each Buddha She also showed us various parts of the temple e.g. Tea garden, meditation room, music room, etc. The monk gave each one of us a scroll depicting family and wealth. Our guide was a gift from the gods on such a blustery day. The next point of interest was way up on a hill, so she put us in a cab and sent us on our way to the Jhongjheng Temple. This temple is situated at the highest point in Keelung. A huge, white Buddha sits facing the port with a light on it’s forehead to light the way for all sea vessels. Behind the Buddha is another huge, ornate temple. As luck would have it we managed to get another cab ride down to the city centre and came across a ceremony of some sort with lots of music and floats. Stopped for some noodle soup in an alleyway, then walked down the Miaokou Night Market shopping area taking in the different varieties of food for sale. Tucked in another alley way was another ornate temple called the Dianji Temple. After checking out a few other shops we called it quits and headed back to the ship. Our original plan was to go to Yeliou and Jiufen which was nixed by weather conditions but all in all we did enjoy Keelung.

Xinggang to Shanghai

October 6 – Beijing to Xingang

Our adventure continues. We arrived at the Southern train terminal only to face hordes of commuters. The next bullet train that would take us to Tian Jin, the closest city to the port of Xingang was a 2 hour wait away. It was well worth the wait and ride though. We clocked the train speed at 330 kmph, therefore taking us only 45 minutes to get there. This would normally take 2 hours by car. The embarkation process was a breeze this time compared to the disaster in Buenos Aires in 2008. The ship was late leaving the port and could not sail away until 11:00 pm as the body count did not tally up. I guess the Chinese government wasn’t too receptive to having any foreigners left behind in their country!

October 8 – Shanghai

We docked at the port of Waigaoqiqo which is 40 minutes from downtown Shanghai. Another amazing city, full of life, colour and incredible architecture. Our walking tour led us to Renmin Park and People’s Square, past the Grand Theatre, Shanghai Museum & the Expo 2010 center. We headed towards the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall, a very commercial open air mall with hundreds of fashionable little shops. We nipped down an alley way to experience the local culture. Just past the Peace Hotel (now owned by Fairmont) we found the Bund pedestrian tunnel under the Huangpu River which was underwhelming. A light show and sounds of maniacal laughter while you’re trapped in these little humid pods, slowly shuttling along a rail line.

The pod took us to the Oriental Pearl Tower, which is the third largest tower in the world. A truly amazing structure which stands approx. 468 m high, composed of 15 spheres of different sizes, depicting large and small pearls falling on a jade plate. We took the elevator to the observation level giving us a birds eye view of Shanghai. An incredible panorama with the Huangpu River running through the center of the city. It also gave us a wonderful panorama of the famous Bund, which is the old area built in the 1900s by the English, US, and French trading companies whose govts forced China to trade with them. After that we took a stroll along the river promenade, observing the multitude of vessels plying the river including these self-propelled barges.

Returning to the other side of the river, we walked south along the Bund, taking in the old English colonial style architecture. Hunger pangs took us down another tiny alley where we came across a very tiny restaurant whose owner invited us in for a noodle feast. It was our lucky day as we met a young English lady who was fluent in Mandarin just sitting down to lunch. She came to our rescue and placed an order for us. Philipa Langdon, a lawyer with an International Law Firm has been in Shanghai for 2 years and enjoys her time here. A lovely, soft spoken lady, we thoroughly enjoyed her company.

After parting ways with Philipa,we walked along this busy little street, while motorcycles, bicycles and cars zipped by us, taking in the street market way of life, looking and peering down tiny alleys. We pulled out our map to find the Yu Gardens, looking thoroughly confused when this 75 year old gentleman, David, came to our rescue. David had a wonderful sense of humour and was eager to expand his knowledge of the English language. He led us to the Shanghai Old Town, considered the oldest district of Shanghai. It’s a labyrinth of alleyways. An area that has been restored to look exactly like it would have looked 400-600 years ago during the Qing and Ming Dynasties. What you would really expect Shanghai to look like with all the old oriental architecture, lanterns and bustling with people and vendors. He led us up an elevator to a beautiful teahouse, located on a roof top overlooking this part of the city. It gave us a perspective of the old and new Shanghai. We stopped for tea and had a few laughs with both David and the Tea Agent while savouring the different, wonderful teas.

Time was running out, therefore we had to say goodbye to David and head back to the Julong Handicrafts & Silk Exhibition Centre to board our bus back to the ship. A wonderful cultural experience in Shanghai!

Beijing Day 2. Oct 4. The Great Wall, acrobats and more

Walking the Sea Wall 8
Image by reg_nordman via Flickr

Beijing Day 2. Oct 4.

Quite a mixed bag that Jack organized for us today. We took a swing by the Olympic park, which is similar to Sydney’s in that it is full of great architecture, but hardly used now. The Bird’s Nest with the adjacent Cube are awesome structures up close. Nearby is an office , hotel shopping mall complex. it is also another amazing piece of architecture called the Dragon Building, a stylized dragon as the main part and sections behind representing the body and tail. Our next stop was a visit to Dr Tea’s Teahouse, where a delightful little hostess led us through a tasting of many different teas, including natural tea that was over 18 years old. We learned how to get the most from White, Oolong, Jasmine and natural tea.

The highlight of the day was our trek to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Being a Sunday and a holiday, we had to take several detours to avoid the rush of tourist heading the same way. A very scenic part of China, very mountainous. No matter how many pictures and films you see of this heritage site, the scale of it still boggles the mind. And it is still a steep climb no matter how you approach it. Built by the Ming Emperor (6000 km in length) to keep out the Manchus, which like other walls (Hadrian’s), it did not stop the invaders. We took a ski lift up to the wall and when we had exercised ourselves to breaking point and filled our camera with umpteen shots from different angles, we tobogganed it back down. What a great and exhilarating way to get down!

As we were in the country, we were able to stop at a Cloisonne factory. Cloisonne is a 500 yr old tradition of creating beautiful enameled bronze pots. The “factory” which involves multiple stages of hand labor turns out an incredible variety of materials. This was an interesting stop and we were impressed with product quality.

One thing that I learned today from Beijing merchants. After you purchase a product, they put in something extra, that you did not expect. It is a good remedy to buyer’s remorse.

Continuing our food exploration, Jack took us to a tiny no name noodle shop. Spicy broth, beef , noodles, with lots of cilantro for two with an enormous bottle of beer , all for $3.50. For the locals it is not the decor or the size of the shop, its all about the taste of the food.

On our return to Beijing we took time to look at the amazing and funky architecture downtown. It just could not be built anywhere else. EG the CCTV building goes up, makes a right angle and then goes back down , with an offset angle. Truly amazing architecture, Vancouver should take note!

Our last stop was to a Chinese acrobatics show at the Liyuan Theatre. We were not ready for this. Having seen bits and pieces of these amazing acts in shows in the past isn’t the same as when you put the acrobats, strongman acts, tumblers, balancers, contortionists and more in one very colourful show with great special effects. The mind is simply overwhelmed. Again I recommend it.

Our thanks again to Jack ([email protected]) for his effort in organizing such a great, informative tour of Beijing. Jack comes highly recommended. He is Skype friendly so you can talk with him before you head over to Beijing. This 28 yr old entrepreneur makes a terrific effort to please you.

Beijing. Oct. 3, 2009. Asia travel trip.

BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 15:  A view of the Hall ...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Beijing. Oct. 3, 2009.

Flying into Beijing, we looked down at three beautiful structures which turned out to be the three terminals of Beijing airport. An architectural wonder (and if not mistaken, the largest covered structure in the world). The whole disembarkation process was so organized….LAX take note! What a super city Beijing is, and yes, it is enormous. BC would be a considered a mere suburb in this city. Such a busy city with very little traffic rules. Traffic lanes are just guide lines, we were taken down one-way streets going the opposite direction and survived the ordeal.

We opted to stay in the Chinese section instead of the more European part of the city. The Holiday Inn Central Plaza, in the Xuanwu District (www.holiday-in.com/hicentralplz) came highly recommended and lived up to it’s reputation. It’s a beautiful hotel with impeccable service, beautiful rooms with bells & whistles we never expected. A full sized swimming pool, extensive gym and saunas. The change rooms have just about everything one needs, e.g. towels, slippers, lotions, hairdryers, you name it, they’ve got it! We took a little stroll around the district in the evening, taking in the culture of this area. Ducked into a tiny restaurant along the way and pointed our way through the menu. Don’t quite know what we had but it was delicious…..they really like their chillies here! Breakfast at the hotel was another culinary adventure. An buffet with a huge array of both Western and Asian items on the menu….so much to pick from and all so delicious!

Jack ([email protected]), our guide met us in the lobby of our hotel and planned our first sightseeing day. Along with his sidekick (driver) they maneuvered us through the streets of Beijing. We are also in the middle of the 60th anniversary of the Communist Republic celebrations, which runs for 8 days, therefore many nationals make the trek to Beijing to celebrate this day. Tiananmen Square was a sea of people. Being part of this celebration has it’s advantages as one would never normally see an array of magnificently constructed floats, each depicting a province of China, lined up on Tiananmen Square, huge topiaries with monstrous plasma screens replaying the celebrations. The Forbidden City was unbelievable. We stood in awe at this collection of ancient architecture (home of 14 Ming & 10 Qing emperors), the number of courtyards, which seemed to go on forever and the size of this wonder of the world. It’s size is mind boggling, it covers an area of 720,000 sq meters and is surrounded by a moat. It would take days to delve into every nook & cranny.

Our next stop was a “Hutong”.Jack commandeered two rickshaws and we traveled through the “Hutong” taking in the city’s traditional alleyways. A lot of these alleyways and homes are being demolished but 25 sectors are being preserved and protected as tourist attractions. The homes in these alleyways are built on a north-south axis with living quarters wrapped around a small courtyard, which then becomes an individual private world. We visited one of these home and spoke with the owner, a lovely, fascinating lady.

Lunch was another adventure with Jack leading us through the menu of a “noodle house” Extensive variety (they eat all the animal here) and very good taste with meals from $1.50 to $4. Our final stop was the Summer Palace, the former summer playground of the royals, where they came to escape the heat. Now we know how the really rich and famous lived! A stunning complex of pavilions surrounding Kunming lake. It also has the longest corridor, a 728 m pavilion decorated with 4000 different mythical scenes. We took a boat ride across the lake to the Dragon King Temple, then walked across the 17 arch bridge back to the Summer Palace grounds.

We called it quits at about 3:30 pm, returning to our hotel and crashing on our king sized bed, falling asleep virtually right away and waking up about 1:00 am!

Looking forward to our next adventure tomorrow with Jack. Stay tuned to our trek to the Great Wall.