Sunday, 15 July 2012

China & Japan 2012

On 13th June 2012 I set off from Dublin Airport headed to Beijing with The Travel Department. The itinerary sounded particularly attractive, visiting China’s capital city and its famous attractions, the Great Wall, Shanghai, followed by a cruise to Japan and South Korea. A combination of culture and leisure, just splendid.
In Heathrow I joined the 10 hour British Airways B777 flight where I was stuck at a window seat, but could not avail of the daylight views most of the way thanks to the crew requesting that all window blinds be pulled down. Forget about films, the best in-flight entertainment to me is following the flight’s progress on the detailed map screen in front of me. Towards the end of the journey I could see we were make a long and circuitous descent to Beijing, and parts of the Great Wall were visible in the surrounding hills. Our captain apologised about heavy air traffic delaying our morning arrival.
Beijing Capital Airport is a revelation in terms of modernity and technology. It was a promising introduction to China. Our Travel Department Guide, Dennis Dai, was holding up a placard to identify himself in arrivals. His first advice was to make use of the modern clean self-flushing toilets in the airport as we would not be seeing such until checking-in to our hotel until the afternoon. We were soon to learn that squat toilets were the norm, and as often as not very unhygienic.
Our first sight in Beijing was the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium as we made our way to the Summer Palace en route to our hotel. Denis proved to be a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, having a degree in English Literature and an ambition to engage himself in Celtic studies. He taught us a few basic Chinese phrases, including xie xie which means “thank you”., and warned us that the reply will sound quite like “bullshit”! He knew all the Irish colloquialisms and accents, and could do a perfect impersonation of a Cork or a Belfast accent. Best of all, he said “My Chinese name is Ning, my English name is Denis, but you can all call me Donnchada”.
We stayed at the five star Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in the business district of Haidian. The bedrooms were smart and luxurious with glass walled bathrooms. I was glad not to be sharing it, but there was a pull down curtain available. Some expensive shopping malls provided immediate retail therapy to the many shopping zealots in our group. Some of them brought a couple of empty suitcases and managed to fill them up over the trip. I really do not know how they got away without paying excess.
I just loved the Chinese food, almost every morsel of it. The style of eating appealed to me where small multiple portions of food are sampled without great mounds of any one item as we tend to have in Ireland. Breakfasts had great variety of both Chinese and western food, and evening meals were almost exclusively Chinese. It suited my dodgy stomach very well indeed, although most of the others had to resort to medications to calm upset tummies. The one thing I did not eat was shellfish and I think that was the others’ downfall.
Katie Melua was not quite accurate in her estimate of the number of bicycles in Beijing. There were not that many, though cycle lanes are provided but not used correctly. But the bicycles that did exist were respected, un-vandalised as they stood, many of them unlocked, on their stands. I have never seen so many cars in my life, decent sized cars, crowding out the monstrous boulevards of big grey square buildings. It would take nearly an hour to travel from our hotel to the restaurant, so great was the gridlock. However grey these boulevards are, they are invariably lines with trees and perfectly trimmed hedges, grass and flowers.  There is an almost complete absence of litter and graffiti, with lots of people employed in cleaning the pavements. I congratulate each one of them.
Over the days we visited the principal historic sites of Beijing, starting with Tian-an-Men Square, an unattractive plain open space relieved by the imaginative planting of flowers. More enlightening was the Forbidden City, also called the Imperial Palace. This is a city-within-a-city, a huge complex of red walled, red Oriental roofed buildings. We walked from one open air enclosure with palace buildings at either end/or sides, to the next. The sun was blazing 41C, we were sipping water but trying not to drink to much of it for fear of needing to spend a penny as the toilets are horrendous. I managed to go the whole day without need of a loo, not a very healthy boast. This Forbidden City was wonderful, but it reminded me of a recurring silly nightmare of a city I can’t get out of.
Nest day we visited the Great Wall, another impossibly hot day for such activity, but it was wonderful to get into the mountains. En route we called by a jade carving factory and the Sacred Way, a beautiful promenade of statues overlooked by willow trees. At least the loos were clean in these places, although toilet paper was not the norm. I have to confess that I climbed no more than a handful of steps at the Great Wall. For a start the metal handrails were burning hot, and I always need to hold these, especially coming down, as I have variable binocular vision and inflammatory arthritis often makes it a fairly painful experience. The steps were very deep and uneven. I just did not want to risk an needless fall. Instead I sheltered behind one of the towers where a nice crowd of young Chinese people shared the shade with their frail grandparents who used wheelchairs. They helped their elderly relatives to take a few wobbly steps on the Wall before returning to their wheelchairs. Many photographs were taken. It was obvious that it was a lifelong ambition for these for to accomplish this, and that they could not have made this achievement but for the wonderful kindness of their grandchildren. There were smiles all around and I think I achieved more by witnessing this than if I had climbed to the top-most tower.
We enjoyed a lovely dinner which featured Peking Duck among other delights. The duck was far superior to any equivalent I tasted in  Ireland. It was crispy, yet melt in the mouth. After this meal some of us opted to enjoy a brilliant Kung Fu show in the theatre next door. However this was the first instance where we were ripped off by having to pay two thirds more the local folk. It is understandable that we should pay more, but not three times the price, surely?
The following day we were taken on a delightful rickshaw ride through the Hutongs or lanes of old Beijing. Everybody thought this was the most enjoyable aspect of Beijing. I shared my rickshaw with Paddy from Mayo, the only other solo traveller on the trip. The cyclist was a charming man who wanted to know what part of Ireland we were from. The trip through the old lanes was such a contrast to modern Beijing! I noted quite a few dogs in this district, and none of them was a mongrel. Most puzzling of all was the presence of a rare perfectly clipped and groomed Bedlington Terrier from Northumbria. These dogs are very difficult and expensive to obtain in Ireland and even Britain, from where they originate. The well cared for dog was walking the lanes along with other breed such as the ever popular Red Poodle, another rarity. I asked where all the cats had gone and I was advised that they live on the roofs of the single storey buildings, keeping the mice and rats at bay. There are not that many dog owners, but those who do own them treat them like children.  No wonder since they are only allowed one child. A lot of the Chinese think it barbaric to eat dog or cat, as practised by some people in the south of the country. On this tour we visited a traditional old house with a courtyard. These courtyards get filled with snow in the winter, but the thick walls prevent the rooms getting too cold in winter and too hot in summer. Our last visit in Beijing was to the Temple of Heaven, set in a park. Remarkably a group of Chinese people were singing Jingle Bells and we all started to laugh; they joined in the good natured laughing.
Our flight from Beijing to Shanghai took just two hours. Check-in was a breeze, very efficient and superbly organised.  Three of our group had brought cigarette lighters in their main luggage through Dublin and Heathrow Airports, but they did not escape the notice of Beijing Airport. The officials are really very pleasant in China, but I suppose they can afford to be, as they have such immense suppose from their technology.  I was really comfortable travelling with China Eastern Airlines. Their safety card featured extensive photographs in lieu of obscure drawings, and the video featured an aircraft being evacuated. The meal on board was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It was the first flight of the day to Shanghai. And featured a breakfast of congee purple rice porridge, a brown boiled egg embedded amid fresh raw celery, a strange type of burger, a yoghurt and mineral water plus two servings of coffee.
When we landed in Pudong Shanghai Airport Denis introduced us to our guide in Shanghai, Eugenia. She and her father suffered from having being well educated. They were both sent to remote cities, with little chance of spreading their knowledge too far. She said things have changed a great deal for the better.
We boarded the Maglev Train in Shanghai Airport and travelled at fastest, 431kph, to Pudong in the midst of the modern side of Shanghai.  It’s smooth, fast and magnetically levitates as it goes, but is a bit of a white elephant as it goes well far from the city centre.
Once on board our coach we travelled to the cosy and beautiful Yu Gardens  on our way to the hotel. Skies were grey and spewing rain, as Denis had described the Shanghai climate as “Irish weather”. The Yu Gardens are typical Chinese gardens with as many buildings as plantations, but they were absolutely delightful and the bazaar or shopping area surrounding them somewhat reminded me of Chester in England. Following was a visit to the silk centre where we learnt abut the production to silk and some folk bought silk duvets.
We stayed at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Century Park, Pudong. Shanghai proved to have even more trees, topiary hedges, bushes and flowers than Beijing, but the architecture here is far superior and way more imaginative. It is as city that clearly reminds me of Singapore. The hotel was superb, but with similar bathroom arrangements as Beijing. In the evening we enjoyed a river cruise on the Huang Pu which travels between the modern Pudong area and the old European style riverside area of the Bund. A magical one hour cruise, but it cost two three times the price that it cost the locals, typical of the way foreigners are treated in China.
One night spent in Shanghai, we went through the lengthy but very polite process of embarking on the Voyager of the Seas, belong to cruise company Royal Caribbean International.  We were scheduled for a five night cruise to Fukuoka and Nagasaki, Japan, and Jeju Island in South Korea. First of impressions of the ship were just ok, compared to my first sort of cruising experience on the Hurtigruten line of small ships along the Norwegian coast the previous year.  I preferred the latter, smaller, more discreet ship, but I would have perfectly enjoyed this cruises were it not for our the abundance of fellow cruise passengers who hailed from rural area of China and who just simply did not know how to conduct themselves. Soon I learned to having my breakfast delivered to my cabin as it was such a nightmare to try and queue up for food in the breakfast cafĂ© only to have your plate robbed to taken right out of your hands. The Chinese (“culchies” as Denis described them) elbowed their way in lifts, queues, spat everywhere, and made life generally highly unpleasant on board. The staff were wonderful, and my cabin attendant made creations of all types of towel animals such as the chimpanzee! Generally speaking, food was mediocre.
Our first port of call was Fukuoka in Japan, overcast with grey skies. Apparently we had been very fortunate to have escaped a typhoon. Aside from grey skies, Fukuoka was very enjoyable and I visited Ohori Park Japanese gardens, Fukuoka Tower and a lovely Shinto Temple. I learned that folk who follow the Japanese Shinto faith have to be buried under Buddhist rites as the former don’t accept death.
shows  dining room food
We had a short enough voyage onwards to Nagasaki. The shows in the ship’s theatre proved to be very entertaining, and the bars were quiet almost to the point of being vacant owing to the Chinese people’s fondness for remaining in the Casino.
I opted for the full day tour of Nagasaki, which ironically omitted the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum. Instead we visited the Mount of the Christian Martyrs and its Museum,  the cable car to Mount Inasa, then followed by a fully Japanese meal in a hotel on the side of the hill. We were thrilled to see at close proximity a brown kite with yellow beak fly right by the window on its way to its nest. The Japanese people proved to be absolutely delightful and as delightful as the Cambodians I had experienced the previous year.  Lastly we visited the very interesting Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. It had been a beautiful and utterly pleasant day, but all hell broke loose as we tried to re-board Voyager.
Re-boarding the ship was an utter nightmare I prefer to forget. Eventually I got to my cabin only to find that my next tour to Hallim Park on Jeju Island in South Korea had been cancelled. In one way I was disappointed, but in another way relieved not to have to face a repeat of re-boarding the ship. The letter suggested I might like to go to the Customer Desk to try book a different trip on Jeju, but I was not in the mood for queuing again down at the desk. I vowed to make the most of an empty ship the next day.
In the morning I enjoyed a lie-in and looked out at the distant city buildings of Jeju. Voyager was moored in the docks, well away from the city centre. The quayside was empty and I decided to venture out just to be able to say I had set foot on South Korean soil. Just above me was a hillside with a white lighthouse perched half way up and a long road curved behind to the city. I did not venture far as there seemed to be just miles of dockland and I had no Korean money to hire a taxi. I returned to the Voyager rather quickly and had a swim in the pool under the muggy grey skies.  I very much came to regret that I did not book an alternative trip as I heard favourable accounts of how the others had got on . They all agreed it was the only time on this holiday that they witnessed pastoral scenes of horses and cows in the fields. Most went to see what they described as the most impressive temple of the whole trip together with a volcanic coast that closely resembled the Giant’s Causeway and a Teddy Bear museum.
A day later we returned to Baoshan port in Shanghai, where disembarkation was a remarkably smooth process. Our group were kept well distanced from the mobs and it was a joy to be back in this great city. However, a middle aged couple from our group were initially denied re-entry to China because they had omitted to obtain a double-entry visa. The Travel Department had emphasised the importance of the double-entry visa, so they really only had themselves to blame. We couldn’t help feeling sorry for them as there was great uncertainty as to what would happen next. They wanted them to return to Japan on the ship, but they reckoned they would have jumped off ship rather than go through another similar cruise. An emergency visa was processed by the Chinese Embassy in Dublin despite it being a Sunday and after several hours of being denied access to food, water, toilet, seat etc. they were allowed through and got a taxi to the hotel.
In the meantime our coach departed for Shanghai city centre to visit the Oriental Pearl Tower, the magnificent Shanghai Museum and Xintiandi. I mustered up the courage to walk out on the glass floor in the Pearl Tower with the city far beneath me. The city’s smog helped to kill the sensation of such elevation, so it was not such a big deal for someone like me with a fear of heights. (Yes I know I flew airplanes, no bother). I fear heights I’m not attached to.
The Radisson Hotel was well located and had a similar bathroom arrangement. The food was equally delicious. Most of the hotel had a white/black theme. In the evening I went for my usual buffet delights. As I was carry my plate of food from the buffet to my table my foot rolled over at the bottom of the two steps. I had only recalled there being one step, and the white-black-white colour scheme failed to draw my attention to the second step. I ordered some wine and finished feeling pain for the moment.
The journey home was painful for the fact of my injured foot as it swelled throughout the twelve hour journey. Worst of all was the traipsing through Heathrow from Terminal 5 to Terminal. An xray next morning proved the damage was simply soft tissue injury which took a few weekks to recover.

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