China & Hong Kong
- Submitted by: Mark Nowak
- Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005
Traveller: You can get anything you want in Hong Kong.
Me: It sounds like Heaven.
Miroslaw: Maybe it is.
I recently returned from a two-week vacation to China and Hong Kong. The tour was arranged through Trans Global Tours which contracted out Inter Pacific Tours International (IPI) which worked with China's China International Travel Services (CITS).
The tour included round trip international airfare via Northwest Airlines, local air and ground transportation, accommodations, most meals, a tour director, local guides, baggage handling, group visa and departure taxes. I signed on for all optional dinner/entertainment packages and the optional Shanghai pre-tour add-on. The final bill was for $3238.00. While on the trip, I spent about another $300. Armed with various brochures and printouts of the wealth of knowledge I collected and compiled from the more than generous people on the net (much of which I did not have time to read before I left), I felt confident I wouldn't be completely lost when I reached China. As far as luggage went, I had my backback and a sort of rolling duffel bag that could be carried by hand or via a shoulder strap.
Monday, March 14, 1994
I took Northwest flight 5 to Tokyo's Narita airport from Chicago at 12:35 PM. This was undoubtedly the longest flight of my life. We followed the sun across the sky in constant daylight for some 13 hours and arrived around 5:00 PM. In all that time they managed to show three movies -- none of which would I have chosen to see even at bargain prices: 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' 'For Love or Money' and 'Grumpy Old Men.' I tried to sleep through the last one (it was either that or kill myself). They fed us often enough, and I was glad I was able to get a good start in Robin Cook's _Vital_Signs_.
Tuesday, March 15 -- SHANGHAI
Having crossed the international dateline, I found myself in Tuesday. We got off the plane and onto a runway where a people mover took us to the terminal. After some slight confusion, I found the gate for my connecting flight to Shanghai. Northwest flight 7 was scheduled to take off at 5:55 PM from gate 49. It was another 747.
There were two IPI groups on the flight. Tony Kang, who was to be our tour director throughout our stay, came around, introduced himself and checked us off on his list. He was coming from LA. His home was just miles away from January's earthquake there. Only about half of the people in his group would be visiting Shanghai, so in Shanghai there would only be 22 of us. When we reached Beijing, the size of our group would grow to 42. We had little IPI buttons that we were supposed to wear with our names and the number which indicated our place in the group (we lined up in numerical order coming in and out of China to go through passport control) to keep us from getting lost and so that we could learn each other's names easier. I wore mine as little as possible because whenever I put it on I felt like an official sheep.
Baa-a-a. Baa-a-a. Flying into Shanghai in the evening lacked the brilliance of flying into your average city in the U.S. Throughout my stay it became fairly obvious how the 1/20 of the world which is the U.S. could use 80% of its energy. When we landed and got our luggage together, I noticed a family in our group with 4 children that even I -- despite heavy resistance -- had to find adorable. Mr. Walsh, an orthodontist, and Mrs. Walsh, a doctor, had Allison (11), Ryan (10), Lauren (8) and Austin (6) with them. The Walshes were from St. Louis.
After the children, I was the next youngest member of the group at 27. Miroslaw, a guy who had come from Poland at my age, was next at 36. After that, I'd say the average age was probably around 60. Miroslaw was glad to find another person in the group who spoke Polish. I didn't believe just how much Polish I ended up speaking on a vacation to China. Miroslaw is also from Chicago and has a wife and a 6 month old daughter. He said she didn't want to come because of the long flight.
We stacked our luggage outside the airport building and waited for transportation to our hotel. The surroundings reminded me a lot of Poland, but most places somewhere between the Thirld World and the United States remind me of Poland. Our bus soon arrived and took us to the Windsor Evergreen Hotel. Our luggage followed on a separate bus. The city wasn't very lit up, but there were plenty of people about. On the way to the hotel we met our local guide, Mr. Yu. Mr. Li would be our driver during our stay in town. Town? Shanghai has over 13 million residents and another 2 million in transient population. Just what this means would be apparent tomorrow during our tour of the city. We were told that China itself has 1.3 billion people.
We checked into our rooms and waited for our bags to be delivered before going to bed. I was in Room 1316 which meant that I was in building 1 on the third floor. I found it interesting that you had to insert your key chain into a slot by the door to turn the power on in your room. I thought it was a pretty clever energy saving idea. Before turning in, I saw the end of a movie about Hong Kong filmmakers on the TV in my room.
Wednesday, March 16 -- Yu Garden, The Bund, Longhua Temple & Pagoda
We had an American buffet breakfast. In fact, all our breakfasts in China were American buffets, and we only stayed in three and four star hotels. I never had reason to complain about our accommodations. We all got on the bus and headed out into the city for a day of touring. I was amazed at the sheer numbers of people everywhere and all the bicylces I saw in use. It was quite a sight. You'd often see more than one person on the same bike. Unfortunately, you'd also see people wearing what looked like thick surgical masks for protection from the polluted air. I was always amazed that even in the morning I couldn't get a breath of fresh air in Shanghai. After a while I started wondering what long term exposure to the air might do.
It was a cloudy, smoggy, foggy day and I could see smoke billowing from smoke stacks in the distance. The streets were congested, but somehow we made progress. It seems that the more I travel the less I have to complain about traffic in the U.S. There was construction everywhere. Buildings were being torn down and new ones were quickly being built. It was surprising to see that the scaffolding used was all bamboo all over the city regardless of how high the buildings were. At one point we heard lots of firecrackers and witnessed the release of balloons at what was apparently a ground breaking ceremony at a construction site. The streets were fairly narrow and many were lined with sycamore trees that I'm sure add to the beauty of the streets in the warmer months.
We made our way to the Old City and Yu Garden where we were beseiged by people selling postcards (10 for a dollar) and various trinkets which often seem like junk (official dust collectors) to me. I noticed Miroslaw actually seeking these people out. It sounded like he was looking for some 'action' so to speak and wanted to know where he could find it. The nearby tea house and garden were beautiful. When Mr. Yu asked what the rocks under one little house looked like, I was the only one who said, 'Clouds.' The was meant to look like a house in the clouds. Mr. Yu told me most people don't see it until they're told.
We then made our way to the Bund, Shanghai's waterfront, from which we could make out the new television tower under construction on the other side of the Huangpu River. The area is known as Shanghai's old 'Wall Street.' We could see many ships on the river as well, and strolling along the riverwalk to the restaurant for lunch was nice. Just outside the restaurant there were a number of beggars. We were told not to give them anything because the city doesn't want to encourage that kind of behavior.
Lunch. Well, the time had come to eat Chinese food, and I knew there would be no avoiding it. All my friends know I don't like Chinese food, and I was prepared to stick out two weeks of it. I expected to lose weight during the trip and had brought chocolate candy bars to supplement my diet for the duration. However, I found myself eating quite a bit. Forks were provided for those who wanted them usually, but I always turned them down deciding to do as the Romans (Chinese in this case). I was surprised at the sheer number of dishes provided. Much of the time we didn't even know what we were eating. We couldn't come to a consensus on just what some dishes were. I was amazed that somehow each meal seemed to hold new surprises and that I was enjoying them. There was all kinds of meat -- beef, poultry, venison, mutton, fish, etc. (that etc. scared me sometimes -- eel, cat, dog, snake among others were possibilities). Just about every vegetable I could think of and some I'd never heard of were served. Desert would often consist of some kind of fruit like oranges. Tea was pretty much always served and Chinese beer was usually served. Sometimes we'd have the option of having a Coke or a Sprite or some kind of artificial orange drink. I did miss sugar though. Salt, pepper and soy sauce were also noticeably absent from most Chinese meals. Breakfasts were always all American.
Afterwards, we visited a silk factory where we could see material being made. A little fashion show was put on for us. This, of course, was followed by a spending frenzy by some of the group. But who am to complain of it means attractive women parading outfits in front of me?
We then visited the Longhua Temple and Pagoda. It was quite an experience for me to explore a Buddhist Temple. The smell of incense filled the air and worshippers were present praying. It was also here that the kids arouse a great deal of interest from the locals. I'm sure it's not every day that a family of six comes along in a country where there is a one-child rule.
Before dinner, we stopped in a jade factory (somehow all the factories we visited had stores -- imagine the luck in that). I lost interest fairly quickly and waited outside. Miroslaw came out, but he was quickly pulled back inside by a woman. Apparently, he had reached up to pick up some kind of jade deer. The antlers weren't part of the deer and being loose fell. One of them broke on impact with the floor. They wanted him to pay for the whole deer. He said he'd only pay for an antler since it wasn't part of the deer. They just let him go. Actually, it almost seemed like some kind of booby trap because you have to reach up for the deer, and it's not apparent that you have to watch out for the antlers.
Miroslaw was carrying around so much camera equipment people were starting to refer to him as the photographer. The expression of being 'shangaied' refers to the formerly widespread use of securing sailors for voyages to the Orient. These men were often knocked out or drugged and woke up to find themselves as forced labor on board sailing vessels.
The buffet dinner was quite good. We were able to (actually we had to) pick out our own meat and vegetables for the cooks to individually prepare for us. They were quite skilled. The food was moving faster than my eyes could follow and just how they kept it off the floor was a neat trick.
After dinner, most if not all of us attended a spectacular acrobatic show that featured just about all child performers. There was one act that I was completely amazed by. A girl of about 11 years old ended up balancing some 17 glasses containing fluid and two plates on her nose. Two young girls would hand her two glasses at a time. The she rolled on the floor without dropping anything. I was impressed, but she wasn't done yet. The two attending girls each brought her a ladder. Then this girl somehow climbed up these separate ladders without falling and without dropping the construction balancing on her nose. Once she was on top, I figured she'd just come down, but no. They gave her a couple of pieces of cloth to twirl around in her hands while keeping her balance on the two ladders and keeping the construction balanced on her nose. She then did everything in reverse without dropping a glass.
It was a great show, but the theater was cold. I was sitting far enough on the left that I could see performers in the wings rubbing their hands together to stay warm. After that, I pretty much just collapsed when I got back to my room.
Thursday, March 17 -- Nanpu Bridge, Jade Buddha Temple, Children's Palace
This morning we found ourselves taking our bus over Nanpu Bridge to the east side of the Huangpu River. The bridge is one of the largest suspension bridges in Asia. It was so high that we had to drive up a circular ramp to reach the crossing elevation. On the other side of the river we saw even more construction. We crossed back near the new TV tower. We stopped for lunch near the Peoples Park along Najing Road. We had time before lunch, so Miroslaw and I explored the park. There were a number of people relaxing, some doing Tai Chi. There were various artworks scattered throughout the park. In one spot we even found people ballroom dancing. Miroslaw and I talked briefly with some girls we met who gave us some of their snack food. It was made of bean curd I think and was very salty. We also stopped into their library and couldn't find a book we could read.
After lunch, we went to the Jade Buddha Temple. In order to enter the room where the Jade Buddha can be found, we all had to take our shoes off. No pictures were allowed. Afterwards, we visited the Shanghai Exhibition Centre which was mostly a lot of stores in a Russian style building. I walked around quite a bit. It was there that the sun finally came out. We were wondering if we'd see it before we left.
Our next stop was the Children's Palace which is basically an after school school for gifted students. The cuteness of the children I saw is beyond description. There was one little girl outside who seemed to be waiting to get picked up looked particularly adorable. Nevertheless, I couldn't figure out a way to legally bring her home with me. We were led into a room where we were served tea and the dean of the school told us through Mr. Yu of the training the students receive there. The pride in her voice was well evident. We were able to see students play instruments, play piano and flute, sing in a chorus, work on computers, practice caligraphy and English typing and in one room grab tourists and make them dance. This one little girl took my hands and dragged me out on the floor and made me dance.
Miroslaw was bored with the school, but I liked it. Of course, we were then led to a little store and told that the money the store generates helps fund the activities for the kids. And so I bought myself a silk tie.
We then went to dinner. In order to get into the restaurant we had to cross a street. Someone from the restaurant actually stopped bicycle traffic so we could cross. Miroslaw didn't much care for the Chinese food. He walked around looking for bargains before we had to leave.
Our next stop was the airport. This would be our first flight on China Air which has the worst record of any airline I was told. Our flight was China Air 930 to Beijing leaving at 8:20. We were flying a 747 without assigned seats. Fortunately, we got on early and had no trouble sitting down. Miroslaw sat across the aisle from me as the plane filled up. He asked a woman to join him and she did. Much to his unhappiness though the kids sat next to us as well, and he wasn't too thrilled with them.
He and I were making each other die laughing during the flight -- much of it at the expense of the guy who sat in front of me. Fortunately in that case, Polish isn't a very popular language. The landing went smoothly, but what followed was quite a sight. In the U.S. as in most places I've been most people pretty much stay in their seats until the plane reaches the terminal. Well, not these people. As soon as the plane touched ground people were getting out of their seats and moving towards the exits. I've never seen such a mad rush on a moving 747.
After a little confusion, we regrouped in the airport. Tony had gone ahead to check on the 20 people we were meeting up with. A woman guard blocked our passage out of the airport and Tony wasn't around. So we just flashed some American smiles until she melted and waved us through.
We met the others and took a very modern highway to the Beijing Toronto Hotel. The city still wasn't bright, but it was very clean and spacious compared to Shanghai. Still, Beijing has over 11 million people. The hotel was very nice indeed. This time I was in room 6029 and every time I used my key at the lock there was a massive spark -- gotta love long corridors and carpets. After our luggage was brought up to our rooms, I just crashed again.
Friday, March 18 -- BEIJING: Tian An Men Square, Forbidden City
Our guide to Beijing (which means Northern Capital) was David Jow (that's what it sounded like anyway). He would tell jokes and suggest we sing 'Row Row Row Your Boat' in the bus. I don't plan on admitting to any singing. After breakfast, we took our bus to Tian An Men (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) Square where we had some time to explore.
The square is so huge it reminded me of Washington D.C. The government prevents any tall buildings from being built around it to keep them from competing with the ones already there. The square has the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution in the east, the Great Hall of the People on the west. Centrally located in the 98-acre space is Mao's mausoleum and the tall monolithic monument to the People's Heroes. I walked around and took some pictures, but we didn't get as much time there as I would have liked.
Our next stop was the Forbidden City which was built by the second Ming emperor, Yongle, in 1421. It was much bigger than I had expected, and after a while, it started to all look alike. We spent too much time here. It was neat, however, to see where they used to give 3-day exams that determined your status in society. Some would die during the course of them or kill themselves afterwards if they failed.
We then made a quick stop at the Temple of Heaven. It was a big temple in a big park where the emporer used to pray for a good harvest. While driving around, I noticed that the scaffolding used in Beijing was metal and no longer bamboo. Also, there were small greenhouses using plastic for cover scattered around so that the inhabitants could grow vegetables throughout the year. Every now and then we caught glimpses of the canal that I heard is so long it winds all the way towards Shanghai. Another cool fact I picked up was that you don't need a prescription for birth control pills in China.
Our next stop was the Summer Palace. It was absolutely beautiful. The Qing architecture, Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill made for a spectacular setting. Most of us walked down the 760 meter Long Corridor which had ornate paintings decorating it every step of the way. We saw a huge boat made of marble before we made or way back to the bus.
Another thing I had noticed about the local people was that many people had stained crooked teeth. I suppose orthodontists are scarce and that the stains come mostly from the fact that people smoke more in China than in any other country. Actually, I was surprised at how many people in our tour group smoked. It was most annoying. That was another aspect of our group that Miroslaw disliked.
That evening many of us attend a duck dinner show. The dinner was elaborate, but by this time something in me had cracked. It refused to be lied to anymore -- I WAS SICK OF THE FOOD!!! I swear this time I felt they were trying to weird me out, pushing me to the edge with bizarre food that in no way could I convince myself I liked. I missed burgers and anything my mom could cook. I found myself spiraling into a depression I couldn't escape. One good part of dinner was Miroslaw making fun of the women at our table in Polish. You see, he couldn't stand what he refered to as their cackling as they talked about all manner of irrelevant topics. He'd make remarks implying that the reason these women were traveling without their husbands was because their husbands had killed themselves from not being able to withstand hearing their conversations. Miroslaw also didn't hide his distaste for the food. He had me in stitches at times.
The show was disappointing with lip singing and mostly pre-recorded music. It went on forever. Apparently I wasn't the only one who couldn't wait for it to end. This time before collapsing on my bed I definitely had some chocolate bars. If I had known this is what was in store for us at dinner, I would have joined Joanne and Diane at the opera. This evening was undoubtedly my worst during the tour.
Saturday, March 19 -- Ming Tombs and the Great Wall
I got up at 6:00 this morning. On our way to the Ming Tombs we stopped at a cloisonne factory/store where we spent too much time. It turned out that Lauren ended up sitting next to me on the bus all day which turned out to be a lot of fun. At the Ming Tombs where 13 of the 15 Ming emperors have tombs we walked down the Spirit Way which has all kinds of stone animals on both sides of the road. Music could be heard from speakers along the route. We then went into the Underground Palace which is the only tomb that has been excavated -- I thought that was kind of weird. The place was crowded and no pictures wre allowed inside.
Things got much better when we arrived at the Badaling section of the Great Wall. The Wall is one of the wonders of the world. It's about a 1000 miles long and can be viewed from the Space Shuttle but not from the moon like some people think. Construction began around 700 B.C., but it wasn't until after the unification of the first Qin (sounds like Chin which is where China got its name) that the different sections were unified.
There were many vendors selling all kinds of souvenirs there. Climbing up the steps to get onto the Wall, you can either go south (to the left) which has a steeper climb or to the north (the right). I chose to go south. Miroslaw followed. From the Wall you can see it snaking across and around hills for miles in each direction. There are towers spaced far enough apart where soldiers could communicate with each other. There are also vendors all along the tower trying to sell postcards, T-shirts and sweatshirts.
I eventually made my way all the way to the 7th Tower south where the wall isn't in as good a shape. I stopped at a small monument on my way back and then went all the way to the 4th Tower north before coming back. I ended up buying a 'I Climbed the Great Wall' sweatshirt for 14 yuan and 1 dollar (or just under $3). I had been straing to cover that much distance especially the trip north. Climbing up to the towers was quite strenuous which is exactly what I was looking for. I was out of breath by the time I reached my last tower.
On our way back to the bus, six guys tried to mug Tony. He put up a fight, and they just walked away. Miroslaw suggested that since we didn't see this happen, instead of six guys it could have just been a little girl who gave Tony a funny look. On our way back to Beijing our driver got a speeding ticket, and we passed by the Lama Temple.
Dinner was in the Temple of the Sun Park near the embassy area. The style was Sichuan which is known for being spicy. Again, I went to sleep early, deciding not to look walk over to the McDonalds, the Pizza Hut or the KFC. It hadn't helped that Tony hadn't joined us and had stayed in the hotel to have a hamburger dinner. I half-jokingly was starting to think we were being drugged -- I mean I was surprised at how tired I was was in the evenings. Maybe they didn't want us walking around and meeting locals. Or maybe I was just being neurotic and paranoid. Tony told us that the reason we were kept so busy was because the Chinese feel that it is rude to have guests and not provide them with enough to do.
Sunday, March 20 -- XI'AN: Qin Terra Cotta Army, Huaqing Hot Springs
Once again I got up at 6:00. Miroslaw asked if I'd join him for breakfast, but when I went to find him at his table, I found him sitting with a Chinese woman at a table for two. I joined Diane and Joanne, but soon Miroslaw came over and asked me to come over. When I did, he introduced me to Joanna Zhong, a Motorola (China) Cellular secretary on her first business trip up from Guangzhou. It was quite a treat to meet someone who works for same company I work for, but in a different country. We didn't have much time to talk, but we did exchange phone numbers as unlikely as us meeting again seemed.
Our 7:00 AM flight to Xi'an had been changed to a 10:00 AM flight from Beijing's military airport. This time we were flying on a Russian plane, and I think only an Asian couple were the only other passengers on board. I had read an account on the net of someone flying this route to Xi'an in which the plane had bounced violently three times -- enough to cause Americans on board to scream. I kept this to myself.
The landing at the east airport was smooth enough, and I had had time to write a few postcards on the way. There was a light rain and fog when we landed. At the airport itself was a man who would look at you, cut out your silhouette and offer to sell it to you. Mr. Liu was our guide while in Xi'an. He first took us to lunch, and then took us to see the Qin Terra Cotta Army where the first Qin emperor is buried. It was the Qin who unified China around 700 B.C. The life-sized army made of painted pottery was impressive, but we weren't allowed to take any pictures. I ended up buying the postcards instead. Over 6000 such soldiers are supposed to be there guarding the tomb of the first Qin emperor, but I was surprised that the tomb itself hadn't been excavated. Most of the warriors face the east where most of the enemies of the emperor could be found at the time.
We then visited the Huaqing Hot Springs where Chiang Kai-shek (the second and last president of China) was abducted in 1936. The rain was coming down as a drizzle at the time which made our stay less than it could have been. Dinner was another extravaganza at the Tang Dynasty Hotel. I was wary of another special dinner and show, but this time I was really impressed. The service was excellent, and the food was good enough that even Miroslaw enjoyed it. Nevertheless, I still kidded that we'd all be getting sleepy shortly. The show was very much in the style of Las Vegas, focusing on the prosperous Tang Dynasty. There was an exceptionally beautiful woman at the next table that it turned out we would keep seeing in the days ahead.
I was in room 711 at the Lee Gardens Hotel. Once again you needed your key chain to turn the power on in your room. In Xi'an I had to switch to a 3-pronged adapter to use my electric shaver.
Monday, March 21 -- Banpo Neolithic Village, City Wall, Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Today I got up at 6:30. At breakfast I saw some of the hotel workers performing Tai Chi in the hotel courtyard. This time, however, I was able to recognize the movements from a Tai Chi class I had taken a while ago. Our first stop today was the neolithic village of Banpo. The site is said to be some 6 to 7 thousand years old. The morning started off cold and foggy, but the sun started to poke its way through by the time we reached the wall of the city. The wall surrounds the old city with a circumference of 14 kilometers. We climbed on top of it on the south side of the city and were just able to see the Bell Tower which was used to signal the opening of the gates in the morning. We later saw the Drum Tower which was used to signal the closing of the gates in the evening. Xi'an was the ancient capital of the China. Now it has some 6 million people.
We had lunch at the same place we had had dinner the night before -- at the Tang Dynasty Hotel. The place is supposed to be a joint venture between China and Hong Kong investors. It was quite expensive to order anything extra with your meal, as I found when I had some coffee. Outside several green, covered tricycle taxis could be seen. Some local artists were selling paintings. I bought a couple that I liked for friends at home. Many of the streets of Xi'an were lined with what I believe were sycamore and locust trees.
We then went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Temple. It was very ornate and worshippers could be seen praying in the temple. The smell of incense filled the air. Going up the pagoda wasn't part of the tour, so I bought my own ticket and climbed the stairs to the top storey where a 360-degree view of the city could be seen. As a foreigner, the ticket cost me significantly more than a local would have to pay. I was continually amazed at how no one ever mistook me for Chinese. :-)
We visited the Shaanxi Provincial Museum which I thoroughly enjoyed. I thought that they way they presented the history of China made it easy for someone to understand how the culture and society developed through the years. We ended up driving through the bustling shopping district on our way to a government restaurant where, of course, the food would not be drugged. From one of the windows I was able to see some kind of playing field. I finished early and decided to explore the hotel. On my way out, a girl intercepted me and seeemed to try to direct me to head in another direction. Communication didn't work out too well, but it seemed that she thought I was looking for the washroom (either that or I hadn't eaten enough to knock me out). I ended up walking around floors that didn't have any lights on. It struck me as odd that the only part of the hotel that seemed to be lit was the dining area on the 4th floor. Weird.
When we got back to our hotel, Miroslaw and I decided to hang out in front by the street and see who we could talk to (I guess I hadn't eaten enough). A woman tried to sell us pencils. A man tried to seel us more paintings. We ended up talking to the man for a while., Miroslaw ended up asking him where we could find some women. I told him to cut it out, and he later said that that was a good thing because he was about to ask about the woman selling pencils -- she turned out to be the man's wife. She was cute. We talked for a while about their lives, and I did end up buying a couple more paintings. Miroslaw went inside while I stayed to talk a while longer with Kaishi (?). He told me that they live with his father who has an apartment provided by the factory at which he works. I went back to my room and put my bags out by 10:00 because we were leaving very early the next morning.
Tuesday, March 22 -- GUILIN: Reed Flute Cave, Fubo Hill, Elephant Hill
This morning I was up at 4:00 AM and had breakfast at 4:30. We were flying out of the airport north of Xi'an at 7:25 -- China Northwest flight 2309. We drove by some cooling towers which someone on the net had thought meant that a nuclear power plant was there. Actually, the power plant there is a coal plant which uses cooling towers. At the airport I noticed the same girl from the Tang Dynasty dinner. This time we flew on a British plane. The view of Guilin from above was spectacular. I don't believe that the limestone formations found there can be seen anywhere else in the world.
The air in subtropical Guiling was noticeably warmer and fresher. We checked into the Windsor Seven Star Hotel. I was in room 7543 which meant Seven Star Hotel, fifth floor. Our guide was the beautiful Shirley who turned out to be married to our driver, Mr. Mao. Many of the various limestone peaks have their own names. We saw Tunnel Peak and Pagoda Peak shortly after arriving. We had lunch at the Li hotel. Afterwards, I went for a little walk, and a guy on bicycle pulled up to me and asked if he could practice his English with me. We talked for a bit until I had to rejoin the group. He was in town looking for a job.
We then visited the Reed Flute Cave which is supposed to be very much like Carlsbad caverns in New Mexico. The place was very beautiful, and many of the formations inside had names. You really had to use your imagination to see some of them, but it was fun. Our next stop was Fubo Hill where most of us checked out the Buddhist writings and then climbed to the top for a great view of the city. At last we were in a town in China with less than a million people. I believe some 340,000 live in Guilin.
We also stopped at a factory in which embroidered silk, tapestries, various woodwork and fur garments were made -- many by handicapped people.
It was nice to have dinner without a bus trip -- we ate at the hotel. Afterwards, nine of us went to the Gui Shan Hotel for an ethnic show which was nothing less than a lot of fun. There was quite a bit of audience participation and dancing. I know because I got pulled on stage for some of it. I'm not one who learns dance steps easily, but it was funny when I realized that the steps were basically identical to some Greek dancing I had done in Greece last summer. I said it was funny -- not helpful. I still struggled with the steps, but mercifully the dance did end. They performed various which represented ethnic minorites that can be found in China. On our way out I once again saw the woman from the Tang Dynasty dinner.
When we got back to the hotel, Miroslaw and I decide to walk the block of stalls just outside our hotel where people were selling all kinds of things like table cloths, crystal balls and woodwork. We went to every single booth -- we were the only shoppers in sight and we were there until 11:00 haggling to the last moment. At one point we were surrounded by 5 little women. Miroslaw was hilarious as he masterfully haggled blood out of stones. He'd tell them the workmanship was cheap. They'd call him crazy. Back and forth for ninety minutes. Eveyone was laughing by the end of it. The man never seemed to tire. I told him he should sell cars. He said he did. (Now he sells insurance, though.)
The sellers had official certificates with their pictures hung over their stalls. They'd often give you their price by writing it out on a piece of paper and expect you to counter their offer with one of your own on the paper. Sometimes they'd type the numbers into a calculator with a liquid crystal display and invite you to type your offer.
Miroslaw bought a couple of table cloths, a silk negligee for his wife and possible some wood work which he seemed so fond of. I bought a some silk pajamas for a friend and a crystal ball. As we were leaving a woman ran up to me with a bigger crystal ball I had eyed and a man ran up to Miroslaw with some woodwork. They were making a last ditch effort to sell, but I wouldn't go any higher than $5 for the ball and Miroslaw had more than enoguh wood to fill his suitcase.
One thing I noticed was that I almost never needed to convert money. Everyone seemed to take American money. Tony told us that they're not supposed to have American money, but everyone seemed to be able to deal with it. Since the best deals were to be had on the streets, the best thing to do would be to bring lots of single dollar bills. I didn't use a single credit card the whole time I was on vacation.
Wednesday, March 23 -- Li River Cruise
This morning we drove to the Li River where we planned to take a 3 and half hour cruise. We walked to our boat, and I overheard a couple of French girls talking. I heard the word bateur and thought, 'Hey, that means boat in French.' Amazing what you remember from language tapes.
The cruise was absolutely beautiful. The landscape was like nothing I've ever seen before. The boat had two decks. The lower main deck had tables and was where ate lunch. The upper deck was used for sight-seeing. Of course, there was a little store there as well. While in the lower deck, I heard some Japanese girls scream behind us. I later found out that someone's eel had escaped, scaring the hell out of the tourists.
We could see cormorant fisherman on the river. The fisherman were on boats of basically three bamboo rods tied together. The cormorant is a bird that is tied to the boat. It cathes the fish. The fisherman then squeezes its neck to make the bird cough up the fish into a basket. Several times a number of these little boats would latch onto our boat, and people would try to sell T-shirts kept in the baskets.
For lunch a hot pot was placed on each table and we had to cook our own food. Meals never seemed to lack surprises. There was a huge shopping area where we got off the boat. I ended up buying a pair of silk kimono type robes for friends who had asked me to get them something along those lines. The bus took us to an early dinner at the Guilin Grand Hotel. We then arrived at the airport where we took China Southern flight 8933 to Guangzhou (Canton). This time we were on a 737.
Flying over Guangzhou in the evening reminded at least three of us of Las Vegas. There were lots of lights in this city of 5 million people. This time two buses were used to take us to our hotel, the Gitic Riverside. The guide on my bus told us about the serious crime in Guangzhou that make even him nervous about walking the streets. From the window I could see a youth expertly wielding numchuks as he walked down the street.
After settling in (I was in Room 2015), Miroslaw and I went for a walk. Miroslaw tried countless times at the desk to reach the woman we'd met in Beijing who was from this city by phone. The best he ever did was to reach her mother who didn't speak English. We didn't know it at the time, but Joanna still wasn't back from Beijing yet.
There wasn't a whole lot to do around our hotel, but we were right next to the Pearl River which made the views from our rooms spectacular. When we got back inside, we decided to try the karaoke bar in the hotel. The waitresses had slits in their skirts that went right up to their hips. Gary decide to join us. It turned out we were the only customers which seemed to be the case whenever we tried to find nightlife on previous nights. Gary treated us each to a drink. It turned out to be rather expensive. The hardest part was communicating what we wanted to our waitress. I had a screw driver which turned out to exceedignly small, little more than a shot.
Thursday, March 24 -- GUANGZHOU (CANTON): Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Park
After breakfast, we left at about 9:30 for a city tour that included Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (China's first president) Memorial Park. We stopped at a ceramic store that was asking $26 for the crystal ball I had bought for $2. Lunch included pastry this time. One of the most shocking facts I learned this day was that some 30,000 children had been stolen from the area last year. Apparently, people who can't have children or need workers or just plain need women steal them. A woman might be lured by the promise of a job and then be kidnapped when she got there.
We made it to the boat dock with enough time for me to spend what little Chinese money I had left. Apparently no one wants the stuff and converting it outside the country is pretty impossible. On our way we saw young people chewing on and spitting out sugar cane pulp.
We left China fairly easily. We were able to sit wherever we liked on the 3 and a half hour trip to Hong Kong. They showed a revenge martial arts movie with female protagonists during the trip. It was pretty good even if I didn't understand the language.
We pulled into Victoria Harbor around 7:30. The lights of Hong Kong were dazzling. We arrived in Kowloon and took a bus to our hotel, the Majestic. Our beatiful guide Bertha greeted us with a 'Welcome to civilization' and gave us directions to he nearest McDonalds to our hotel which was right on brightly lit Nathan Road. After checking in (I was in Room 1126), Miroslaw and I headed straight for that McDonalds. While we were there, I counted 16 of our party. I was told later that 31 of us showed up there that night. Miroslaw and I each had Big Mac value meals, staring into space as we ate. It was amazing just how much this was missed. We then had them turn on the sundae machine! I had a strawberry sundae ... with nuts!
After we were done (and not a moment before), we walked down Nathan Road checking out the galaxy of merchandise and great prices in front of us. The Klingers joined us as we made our way to the harbour. We passed the Peninsula Hotel and then the Space Museum until the spectacular view of Hong Kong Island at night came into view. The skyline was nothing less than stunning.
On our way back, this guy tried to sell Miroslaw a fake Rolex watch. He talked us into coming into this backway and up some stairs to see his merchandise. At this point it was just Miroslaw and myself and I was figuring we'd be lucky if we just got hit on the head and had our wallets stolen. A woman on the way back there told us to be careful. Inside the room we were taken to were several guys playing some kind of game I think I had only seen in an episode of Kung Fu. There were a few other prospective buyers, and Miroslaw was asked to pick out the style of watch he liked from a book of photographs. When he had, another guy would leave the room and come back with the watch he had picked out.
Then Miroslaw started haggling with the guy and pointing out the features that made the watches displayed bad fakes. I don't believe the things I that night. Well, we managed to leave without buying anything, but not before Miroslaw talked them down to $HK 700 for two good fakes -- a little less than $50 each.
Friday, March 25 -- HONG KONG: Victoria Peak, Repulse Bay, Stanley Free Market
Breakfast was the only meal of the day included in the tour in Hong Kong -- which was fine with me. We started the day with a half-day of touring. We drove through Kowloon and took the Cross Harbour Tunnel over to Hong Kong Island where our first stop was the view from Victoria Peak. Among the sights we saw were Repulse Bay, a fishing village in Aberdeen and a jewelry factory. At the factory we had a guided tour by a beautiful blonde woman with a British accent. I tend to view most souvenirs as crap, but jewelry gets a special designation -- expensive crap. We then went to the free market in Stanley where a lot of great deals could be found. I bought myself two shirts, a T-shirt and a pair of shorts for about $20. Miroslaw was busy shopping for watches.
Hong Kong is 98% Chinese, but being a British colony (at least until July 1, 1997) it was a lot easier to get by without speaking Cantonese. There were double decker buses and often you'd see school kids dresses in uniforms that reminded me of school kids in Britain. We were told that school in Hong Kong is very intense and that sometimes children commit suicide form the stress.
When we got back, he and I had lunch at a KFC. I then walked around on my own. I very much enjoyed Kowloon Park and decide to go back the next day. Many of us had dinner that night on one of the brightly lit Jumbo Floating Restaurants in Aberdeen which meant going back to Chinese cuisine. Miroslaw had caught a bad cold, but when we got back from dinner, he joined me on a walk back to the harbor where we checked out the view from the Sheraton's Sky Lounge and took some pictures.
Saturday, March 26 -- Kowlooon Park, History Museum, Space Museum, Star Ferry
Today was a free day where we could do whatever we wanted. Miroslaw spent much of his day buying watches for many of the people on our tour. He had apparently found some good quality ones. I started out by walking down the streets. I bought a friend a leather waist pack and then got my mom a silk coat from a seller who didn't have a left hand. I returned to Kowloon Park and explored the Hong Kong Museum of History there. I had lunch with a couple from Wisconsin on our tour I ran into just as I was entering a Wendys.
I then had a blast in the Hong Kong Space Museum. There were some displays there that the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry could take a few pointers from. I also took in an informative planetarium show and unfortunately, a boring Omnimax movie on tropical rainforests. I ran into Chicagoland couple just before I took the Star Ferry across to Hong Kong Island. The full moon just added to the effect. I ate at a McDonalds before taking the ferry back.
On my way home, I spent most of my remaining Hong Kong dollars by buying a T-shirt, a scarf and a silk jacket. I also rode the subway for a stop. It turned out the subway was a pretty happening place. Go underground and there's more shops! Packing kept me up fairly late that night.
Another thing I liked about my stay in China and Honk Kong was being able to watch CNN, BBC news and an Asian version of MTV from my hotel room.
Sunday, March 27 -- Homeward Bound
I got up at 5:00 after about 2 and a half hours of sleep. Our bags were due out at 6:00 and breakfast was ready at 6:15. I took Northwest flight 18 from Kai Tac airport at 9:25 to Tokyo and then Northwest flight 6 at 3:50 to O'Hare. I managed to watch 'Addams Family Values' during that flight. Customs were a breeze, and I walked into the waiting arms of my mom, Marion and MJ. I had a slight cough which turned into one of the worst colds I've ever had within 24 hours.
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