2006 CHINA & BANGKOK

Globus/Awful-lon

This trip turns out to be 22 days instead of 20 due to LONG flights both ways. This is NOT the only trip with trans-ocean flights this year. It was to have been, but then I booked the "Viking Settlements" tour for the fall. Even worse, it's through that "Awful-lon" Waterways that ran the ship on the Danube River cruise.

Day -16, Friday, April 7 Chinese Visa
When I went to pick up my Chinese Visa ($50), there was a problem - no blank pages in my passport, and no time to send it in to get more pages added. I finally convinced the clerk to go ahead and paste it on a page with only 2 or 3 'stamps.' I have to be sure to send it in for extras when I get back - should be plenty of time since it will be 69 days until my next trip. The Passport is good through May 2008 so I definitely need more.

Day 1, Sunday, April 23 Fly to San Francisco.
I have to fly to San Francisco a "day" early in order to catch my trans-Pacific flight. At least it's a reasonable departure time so I can use the taxi/shuttle combination on both ends of the trip. 4 flights over, 6 "infernal" flights while there, 4 flights back.

American AA1300Houston - Dallas5:00 PM - 6:08 PM1:081:53
American AA1415Dallas - San Francisco8:01 PM - 9:46 PM3:453:34

Despite the plane coming in to the wrong gate and therefore having all the passengers scramble at the last moment, depart on time. With American Airlines, nice leg room. At DFW there's a terminal change but SkyRail makes it easy.

Again on time. In flight, they want $4 for a small box snack meal. No thanks.

Day 2 (1), Monday, April 24 Board my transpacific flight
This is going to be a "short" Monday. Looking ahead/looking back, I figure it's only 9 hours long. We get that back on the Saturday when we return (39 hour day).

Cathay Pacific CX873San Francisco - Hong Kong1:20 AM - 6:25 AM14:051:40

DON'T EVER FLY WITH THIS AIRLINE ON A TRANS-PACIFIC FLIGHT. This turns out to be an older 747 with seat configuration/spacing for shorter Chinese people. I can barely squeeze my knees in with the seat in front in full upright position. When it's reclined even slightly for the overnight flight .. totally impossible. I have so spend almost the entire 14 hours sitting sideways on one hip with my knees and feet out in the aisle. Not only that, but it's a "split-level" seat. MISERABLE! HORRIBLE! NEVER-NEVER again. So-so "dinner" at 3:30 AM PDT. Decent breakfast except that it's almost impossible to eat sitting sideways. This flight is the most horrible of the approximately 200 I've taken. It's so bad that it pretty much destroys the trip … since I know that I will also have to face it going back in 3 weeks. It definitely affects my response / feelings / attitude about the trip. (many words censored) If I could have teleported home right now, I would have. It's that awful.

Lose one day crossing the International Date Line. It's going to be a **LONG** flight.

Day 3 (2), Tuesday, April 25 Arrive in Beijing, China
Hong Kong - huge airport, but no "immigration" check here since I'm transient into China (Hong Kong is still administratively independent - flight from HK to Beijing is considered an 'international' flight.)

DragonAir KA900Hong Kong - Beijing8:05 AM - 11:20 AM3:1529:20

Much better now. Flight is only half full. Very good breakfast. I like Dragon Air. Arrival in Beijing - very quickly through "Immigration/Customs." No problem. By chance, our tour director, Pam Brown (super Tour Director) is on the same flight and several of us ride into town on the same bus. We get to the hotel about 12:45. Our rooms are supposed to be ready when we get there … but they aren't until about 4PM. While we wait and wait, we can watch one of the hotel staff walking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back …. with a large (1m wide) mop keeping the lobby floor bright and clean. Job security. Dinner is not included but I'm not hungry - too exhausted from that Sardine Hell-lines flight. Weather is cool and cloudy. To bed very early. Hotel: Kempinski Hotel Beijing (3 nights). Oops! Bad Omens! A Kempinski hotel in Sofia was the one I "demoted" from 5 stars to 3 stars on the Balkans trip and it's in the LateHansa Center - at least I'm not flying LateHansa (though that would have been better than Sardine Hell-lines). The room controls in the hotel are on a touch pad - nice except that there is no 'night light'. In order to turn on the light - without sounding an alarm or whatever - I have to learn to find an alternate (safe) button which I can do by feel. Pushing one button turns on the 'night light' feature so that I can then find the button I actually want. It's a nice feature but without that 'night light' it could be a real problem.

Day 4 (3), Wednesday, April 26 Beijing
Tour Director: Pam Brown (from Australia). 37 members on our tour. Still suffering from the Sardine Hell-lines trip. It's about 3 days before I can stand / walk normally. Our full-day sightseeing starts with a visit to TIAN'ANMEN SQUARE, the largest public square in the world spanning 100 acres. Nearby is the FORBIDDEN CITY and its IMPERIAL PALACE, once the home of China's Great Emperors. Enjoy lunch in a local restaurant and continue to the ZOO to see pandas. As much propaganda as China reaps about the Pandas and how they claim that the Pandas are a National Treasure, we would think that they would have a great exhibit in the National Zoo - NOT. This is pathetic!!! Next, see the former SUMMER PALACE (ho-hum - not worth the stop), a complex of pavilions, temples and galleries set among beautifully landscaped grounds and situated on Kunming Lake. This evening's special Chinese WELCOME DINNER features delectable (so they say) Peking Duck and I duck the Duck. Yuck! (B,L,D)

The Tian'Anmen Square is huge. I had thought of it more like the European city squares - closely surrounded by buildings, but that's not the case here. The Forbidden City and Palace are a bit less impressive than expected, probably because I've seen so much of them in tv documentaries on the History, Discovery, Travel, and PBS channels. The same will hold true later for the Great Wall and the Terra-Cotta Warriors. Though less impressive than I had expected, I'm still VERY glad that I've been here to see them "live and in person." Beijing is an extremely clean city - no trash. Also looks very modern and there's LOTS of building going on as they try to get ready for the 2008 Olympics. Weather today cool and cloudy. Also windy, particularly on the lake at the Summer Palace (wasted stop here). We were supposed to get back to the hotel for a rest between the tour and dinner, but due to Beijing traffic, that has to be skipped so it's a VERY long day … from 7:30AM until about 10PM. My knees and back are (still) very sore.

Dining note: Breakfasts are buffet style and have a good selection of both Chinese and western foods. I usually eat a very good breakfast since I don't know what is coming later. For the other meals, they are multi-course / multi-dish and are served on a "lazy Susan" so we can pick and choose what we want to try. I always manage to find something that my stomach will consider 'edible'. There's always lots of 'sticky rice.'

Beijing traffic: If they have traffic rules/laws, it seems that nobody knows anything about them. Three lane streets are usually driven as 4-lane (or even 5 or 6 lane). Driving is a 24/7 game of "chicken" with bicycles, cars, trucks, and busses all fighting for space. Mexico City and Rome have nothing on Beijing…and I'll take Houston traffic any day!

Day 5 (4), Thursday, April 27 Beijing
The GREAT WALL OF CHINA once stretched 3,000 miles across China's barren northern terrain from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert. Head north to a village where the Great Wall is well preserved and walk along the wall to enjoy sweeping vistas (whatever we can see through fog and clouds) of this mammoth fortress (if we don't get blown right off it in extremely high wind). Actually, this part of the Wall is a fake: it is a reconstruction ordered by Chairman Mao in the 1960s in order to increase China's recognition in the world. After lunch in a local restaurant, we visit the MING TOMBS, burial site for 13 of the 16 Ming emperors. There's also an interesting "walk of honor" (about 1 mile) with some great statues. We also stop at a cloisonné factory / shop. I buy a couple of 'cats.' Tonight experience local culture at the PEKING OPERA with its various forms of drama and music dating back to the late 13th century. (B,L)

Peking Opera This was originally listed as an option, but turns out to be included. Although Various forms of drama and music existed thousands of years ago, theater that included music and dance can be traced back to the Song and Yuan Dynasties of the late 13th century. The operatic form became highly developed during the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in the area around Suzhou. This form included many elements of local and provincial theatrical styles and was superseded by what we now call Beijing opera. Beijing opera included music, song and dance, pantomime and acrobatics. The forms of all of these Chinese arts are different from their Western counterparts, and similarly, Beijing opera is different from any opera, drama, singing, dance, mime, or acrobatics that Western visitors are familiar with. ($28 - included)

Day 6 (5), Friday, April 28 Beijing-Xi'an
This morning enjoy a rickshaw (our modern version is a pedi-cab) ride through Beijing's HUTONGS, the city's ancient alleys, watching out for muggers, thieves, pickpockets, and miscellaneous beggars.

Hutong Tour Originally listed as optional, but is included. A hutong is an ancient city alley or lane typical in Beijing where they number in the thousands. Surrounding the Forbidden City are many that were built during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. In the prime of these dynasties, the emperors, in order to establish supreme power for themselves, planned the city and arranged the residential areas according to the etiquette systems of the Zhou Dynasty. This tour will see some of these interesting alleys.

We take the tour in 'pedi-cabs.' These are 3-wheel, 2 passenger bicycle powered conveyances. My 'driver' is quite aggressive, often rear-ending the pedi-cab ahead, and sideswiping others, including a couple of bicyclists whom he runs into trash cans, etc. He also has the 'habit' of falling back (it takes 19 pedi-cabs for our group) just before a corner, then speeding up to see how fast he can take the corner (on two of the three wheels) without turning over. The local vendors are very aggressive and insistent; some even pedal furiously on the bicycles along side of us trying to peddle Rolex watches, coolie hats, scarves, etc. Rolex Watch - Five Dollar! 3 Watches, Ten Dollar! .We also have a stop to visit a family living in the Hutong. There are 3 families in 8 rooms - considered quite spacious for the area.

It's a gridlock drive to the airport - expected for Beijing traffic. Fortunately the plane is running late.

China Eastern MU2110Beijing - Xi'an1:40 PM - 3:30 PM1:50.

A short flight with the best leg-room so far (peanuts on the plane for lunch) brings us to the city of Xi'an in central China where we spend the next two nights. Landing: we must have a student pilot making his 2nd successful "crash landing" since the first one got him his license. It takes "forever" for our luggage to be delivered in the hotel.

(B,D) Hotel: Shangri-La Golden Flower (2 nights) Better hotel than in Beijing - we can adjust the air conditioning. This evening enjoy "The Tang Dynasty" DINNER SHOW featuring a colorful assemblage of classical performances - music, dance, theatre. Incredible show! Super Fantastic. It turns out to be (for me) THE highlight of the trip. I even bought the DVD of the show. WOW!!!!!!!

Day 7 (6), Saturday, April 29 Xi'an
One of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world when China dominated the silk trade, Xi'an today is an archaeological treasure-trove. Sightseeing begins with a visit to the nearby DAYAN PAGODA, built in 652 A.D. In 1974 the enormous TOMB of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, was accidentally discovered by local farmers. Marvel at the legion of terra-cotta warriors that has been guarding the burial site for 2,000 years. Nice spicy Chinese food for a late lunch. Very good. Then back to town for a visit to a rug factory/shop. We see how the rugs are made - 150 knot per inch is 'cheap' but they go as high as 800 knots per inch (maybe Bill Gates can afford one - not us!). Dinner in the hotel tonight. It's been a very warm day - upper 90s. (B,L,D)

I have the same (not as fantastic) response to the Warriors - I've seen them too many times on tv - but very glad I'm here. The highlight is seeing the early version of a Mercedes Benz - the 1/2 size replicas of the bronze chariots, both traditional and enclosed, that were also found in the tombs. NEAT! I buy a 1/10 scale model of one (having it shipped home.)

Day 8 (7), Sunday, April 30 Xi'an-Chongqing-Foggy-Smoggy River Cruise
This morning visit the Xi'an City South Gate and the "Big Wild Goose Pagoda"; we even see some locals practicing their early morning Tai Chi. Near the BWGP, we get an introduction to various of the Chinese teas and a demonstration of the "tea ceremony." Then to the airport for an excellent (included) lunch.Fly to Chongqing, China's capital during World War II.

Huinan Air HU7268Xi'an - Chongqing4:15 PM - 5:45 PM1:30.

Originally scheduled for 12:30, but due to "aircraft rotation" very delayed. We decide that "aircraft rotation" means that the incoming aircraft is due for maintenance, but someone forgot to schedule a replacement aircraft. So we (and the other 150 passengers) sit there for hours as flight after flight takes off through our gate. On landing the (student?) pilot comes close to burning out his brakes - he almost throws us out of our seats.

The result of all the delay is that we totally miss our tour of Chungqing including a scheduled visit to the "Flying Tigers" museum. (comments censored) When we finally arrive, our Chongqing local guide (he doesn't get to do much 'guiding') tells us that he has been getting many calls from the hotel (where they are holding tables for us for dinner) and the cruise boat (waiting on us to board) - are they here yet??? They ask. The only answer he could give - no, they are still in Xi'An. Now finally, we made it. We struggle to rush though the evening rush hour to make it "directly" (no sightseeing whatsoever unless we call traffic watching as sightseeing) to our (on-shore) dinner. Chungqing is known as the "furnace of China" - and its true today - very hot - upper 90s.

The city is high on a hill overlooking the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers. We have a very late dinner on a terrace of the local "Holiday Inn". It's nice but we can't see much of anything due to river fog. We were to have boarded the ship about 7, but barely make it by the 9PM sailing time (after struggling down 120 steps in the dark (no lights - only the dim glow from lights on the opposite shore) and a "mile long" walk on a makeshift pier across the mud flats. Sailing is delayed due to our late arrival. The ship waited for us since we were the largest of the various groups aboard.

Board the Victoria Katarina for a three-night CRUISE through the breathtaking (?) Three Gorges of the Foggy-Smoggy River. There's a mandatory (late night) orientation/safety talk delayed (for us) until about 10 PM. (B,D on shore) "Hotel": Victoria Katarina (3 nights = actually 2.5 days) Nice cabin - number 305.

Day 9 (8), Monday, May 1 Cruising in the fog. Fengdu
Very foggy as I get up - and breakfast is NOT at a decent time (early) - almost lunch time (=7:45). So foggy that we have to stop for a about an hour and wait for the fog to thin so the crew can see where to steer the boat.

Depending on river conditions, one of the following shore excursions will be offered: Wanxian, "Gateway to Eastern Szechuan Province," where we will see an acrobatic show, market and possibly a school; Shibaozhai with its 400-year-old, twelve-story red wooden pagoda perched high on a cliff side; or Fengdu, known as the "ghost city" where we visit several temples.

For the excursions, we are told to gather in groups since we will travel together as groups on the various busses. One of the tour groups (German) is called "Oh My Gott!" (really!) Is was hoping for Wanxian, but it turns out to be Feng Du. We go ashore and climb about 150 steps to where we have an option - another 600 steps, or take a ski-lift. I opt for the ski lift. At the top of the ski-lift, it's another 228 steps to the top of the 'mountain' and the main temple of Yama, God of the Underworld. Very hot at 95F, but an interesting excursion. At least we can see a bit more up here since we're above the river fog. We have an excellent local guide. Time for some 'shopping' (but I don't buy anything) before the long climb back down the mountain (and the ski-lift again). China seems to be land of steps - and more and more steps.

All along the river we see deserted and/or demolished buildings as the government has moved people out and is in the process of demolishing the buildings. What they have done with the 1.3 million people - they built new (concrete looking) high-rise towns up higher on the hills. The apartment towers are 8-10 stories high … and have NO elevators (elevators are not required in China unless the building is more than 10 stories high). From a distance they look nice, but it's probably a concrete jungle, and we are told that the apartments are very small - and often only one or two rooms for a family.

Captain's Reception Dinner tonight. (Is "Awful"-lon going to have the same "wine or else" at dinner practice? Yes. #)$(*#$(#*) Just as they did on the Danube cruise with Awful-lon, I get the impression that I'm a third-class citizen for not wanting wine with my meal but water! Gads! Horrors! Never! To bed early-nothing to see in the fog. (B,L,D)

Day 10 (9), Tuesday, May 2 Fogging. Daning River
Head downstream through the first (very early - still dark and very foggy) and second of the three gorges-Qutang Gorge, the shortest but most dramatic (foggy) gorge, and Wu, known for its quiet beauty (and fog) and forest-covered mountains. We can nearly touch the perpendicular walls rising from the riverbanks as our captain carefully negotiates this foggy narrow gap. (Are you getting the idea: Foggy-Smoggy River!)

After breakfast, disembark for a BOAT EXCURSION down the Daning River. This turns out to be the best part of the cruise. We first take a fairly large boat (150 passenger so it takes two of them for all the ship passengers) up the main part of the river for 1.5 hours, then shift to 20 passenger 'sampan' boats (2 for our group) up a really pretty part of the river and the mini-gorges for a 45 minute round-trip. It's too bad that all this will be flooded. Along the way we see water taxis, people singing to us, rescue stations, and other interesting sites (and people). We even see some of the houses being demolished (dynamite charges going off) as the government prepares for the coming flood. Unfortunately it's a short excursion, only about 4 hours (8-12AM). Growl!!! Back to the ship for lunch - it's hamburgers (but the Chinese version)!

After lunch it's time to "go fly a kite" on the top deck, but it's too windy for anything except the larger ones. Continue sailing through Xiling Gorge and the Three Gorges ship locks - where it's gotten too dark (and foggy) to see much - and it's time for dinner - "Farewell Dinner" (gee, yesterday was Captain's Reception, tonight it's Farewell).

For the large locks, they can cram in 7 boats - 2 like us in line (ours and one other), 3 long narrow barges in a line beside us, and 2 short barges side-by-side behind us. Of course it takes a very long time to get all 7 in and positioned…which is repeated as we have to exit into the next lock, etc. Quite a long time to get through the locks. (B,L,D)

Day 11 (10), Wednesday, May 3 Fogging. The Three Gorges Dam Site-Shanghai
View the remains of tiny villages clinging to hillsides and more concrete elevatorless high rise apartments as we proceed toward Yang Jia Wang. This morning visit the Three Gorges Dam Site (at 7:30 it's lost somewhere in the fog - we can't see much of anything) where the Chinese progress toward building the largest dam *of its kind* in the world. When originally started, it was estimated that the power station would supply 93% of China's power; now the estimate is only 5%.) The river is currently at a height of 139.5 meters; by the end of October it will be at 156 meters, and by the end of 2008, the full 175 meters. It's almost the last time to see something through the fog.

After lunch say a hurried farewell to our ship's crew (they are in a hurry to kick us off so they can get ready for the mob coming onboard for the up-stream cruise) in Yichang. Unloading our luggage is quite a task for the crew. There are no elevators on the ship so first they have to gather the luggage in the main lounge, then carry the bags one by one down a variety of steps through twisting corridors to a lower level (dock level), then "walk the planks" across the long (200 yards) 'gangway/pier/walk' (using bamboo yokes with 1 or 2 large bags on each side) then up 118 steps to the town level, then to the busses (another 200 yards). We just have to carry our 'carry-on' luggage and that's bad enough.

After a long trek through a mob of street vendors, onto our bus for a transfer to the airport for our flight to Shanghai, China's most populous city and center of trade and industry.

Shanghai Air FM9366Yichang - Shanghai4:00 PM - 5:30 PM1:30.

On time flight, but although there is some air circulation, there isn't really much of an air conditioning system. Quite warm on board. No refreshments - unless we like seaweed seasoned peanuts. Our 'entertainment' is a 1-hour non-stop 'show' of commercials for hotels, vacations, clothing, etc. on the main screen.

Tonight there will be plenty (?) of time to enjoy the city, and shop some of the 400 stores on Nanjing Road and the famous Friendship Store on the Bund (where they want us to spend lots of money!). Most of Shanghai is so modern that it's "impossible" to tell that we are in China except for the funny lettering on the signs. (B,L) Hotel: The St. Regis Shanghai (2 nights) "Six star" hotel - I don't want to know how much these two nights are bankrupting me!!! Dinner is not included tonight but I had a BIG breakfast and a good lunch on the ship. A bit cooler here tonight.

Day 12 (11), Thursday, May 4 Shanghai
Another clear, cool day - at least at the start. We need this. Schedule re-arranged. Full day of sightseeing.First visit the ornate TEMPLE OF THE JADE BUDDHA. Then off to a silk factory where we see how they make silk from the silk-worm cocoons (and have a chance to buy a silk-filled 'duvet') To make the silk duvets, first take a total of 10 silk 'double cocoons' and stretch over a frame. Then take 100 of those and stretch into the appropriate size. Stuff into a liner and we have a silk duvet. Very nice and not too expensive, but I don't need one with our mild winters here in Houston.

After a so-so lunch, experience the YU YUAN GARDENS (nice, with lots of street vendors competing for our attention.) Next is a visit to the CHILDREN'S PALACE, one of China's famous kindergartens where we see music, dance, and art classes. Interesting and very 'cute kids.' We can also shop for student-made (some of the students are up to 18) items. I get a couple of purses for gifts.

During the city tour, we see lots of 'fast food' outlets. There are over 1500 KFC locations in China, as well as McDonalds, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, etc. Pringles have even made it to many of the street-side vendors and to the 7-11 markets … yes even 7-11 is here. Pepsi seems to have most of the market tied up (airlines, hotels, restaurants). Coca-Cola is in the bottled water business (logo on many of the drinking water bottles.) Back to the hotel at 5.

Off at 5:45 for the Acrobats show. Acrobats Originally listed as optional, but is included. Chinese acrobatics has a 2,000 year history and is one of the many popular performances in China. Visitors to China will have a chance to see the almost supernatural skill and beauty displayed by these performers. We were told photos allowed, then not. Some people did take pix but I followed the rules. The show was good, but I've seen similar shows (not as good, but close) elsewhere.

Late return to the hotel where we found that some clerk in Reception has fouled up and our room keys don't work. So 38 people have to go down stairs and get our room key-cards re-programmed. (B,L)

Day 13 (12), Friday, May 5 Shanghai-Guilin
Foggy and much warmer this morning. Stroll along the Bund, the city's riverfront boulevard lined with historic buildings housing banks and trade houses - not as nice as it could have been - due to the fog. We visit the SHANGHAI MUSEUM - some beautiful exhibits, but not enough light for good photos. Enjoy lunch in a local Mongolian BBQ restaurant - very interesting way to choose our food and have it cooked. IMO, the best lunch of the trip. Excellent!!!! If I remember correctly, there's a Mongolian BBQ restaurant here in Houston - I have to check it out. IMO, the Mongolian BBQ was the highlight of Shanghai.

Transfer to the airport for a flight to Guilin one of China's most beautiful areas.

China Southern CZ3252Shanghai - Guilin2:55 PM - 5:00 PM2:05.

Apparently the flight crew didn't get a pre-scheduled push-back, taxi, etc. time so we have to sit on the plane (for about an hour) until the control tower can fit us in. The plane is 1/2 full, and the a/c works so it's not TOO bad. Only 1/2 cup Pepsi refreshments since it was to have been a relatively short flight.

Quick luggage delivery at the airport (hooray) then a 45 minute drive into town (seems almost all such drives are right at 45 minutes). Interesting hill scenery around town and lots of rice paddies but it's getting late and the way the bus is bouncing around in the traffic, no chance for pictures. The hotel is right between the main street and the river - great location. Early evening walk and to bed a bit early. Dinner not included, but not needed after that great BBQ lunch. (B,L) Hotel: Sheraton Guilin Hotel (2 nights)

The Sheraton hotel has a note posted in each room: "Dear Guest, We respectfully request that no items of clothing be hung on or outside the windows or on or over the lampshades in this room." I guess this is meant for the Chinese guests who are in the habit of drying the laundry that way when they are at home. Interesting.

Day 14 (13), Saturday, May 6 Guilin
Limestone mountains, their needle peaks hidden in mist, rise from the green plain surrounding Guilin. The scene conveys a sense of mystery that for centuries artists have tried to capture. Savor unique vistas during a leisurely CRUISE on the foggy, rainy (yes, rain!) Li River where we enjoy a light lunch (very nice box lunch packed by the hotel rather than the lesser lunch provided by the ship) and some high pressure selling - where I get a silk table cloth for a gift. They also have "snake wine" (a complete snake in with the wine) for sale. No thanks, not even for a gift - though I get a couple of good pictures. Too bad - both the longer cruises have been 'fogged in/out'. The scenery, what we could see of it, looked as if it could have been beautiful. When we get to the end of the cruise, there are cormorant fishermen on the dock - we can take their picture for 10 yuan/$1. Time for some shopping (in a light rain) to spend the last of my yuan, then a 2 hour bus ride back to Guilin. On the way we see some 'peasants' along the rode and stop to take their pictures. More yean (or dollars) for tips. Short stop near the hotel to see some of the Chinese pearls (no shopping herefor me - I've spent it all.) Dinner not included but I have some left-overs (mine and some contributed by others) for dinner. (B,L)

Day 15 (14), Sunday, May 7 Guilin-Hong Kong
Free morning, but it's warm, wet, etc. I skip the walk-around. Lunch not included but I still have some leftovers from yesterday's box lunch, and also have a nice breakfast. Time today for an optional visit to the famous Reed Flute Cave to see some unusual stalactite and stalagmite formations.

GUILIN OPTIONAL TOURS
Flute Caves The Reed Flute Cave, named after the reeds that grow at the entrance, is over 1/2 mile long. The temperature inside is a comfortable 68F. The lighting is cleverly placed so that with a bit of imagination, we can see in the limestone formations a giant goldfish, a Buddha, a wall of assorted vegetables, etc. (no thanks, I've seen lots of caves.)

After leaving the hotel about 3, we have time for a stop at the pride of the city: the "Seven Star Park" (drastic need for some gardening/upkeep and the zoo is pathetic - 3 peacocks, one tired tiger, some monkeys, and a rabbit 'petting area' for kids). The main point of interest (for the Chinese) is a rock placed by a walkway where then President Clinton made a speech. There is a long line as they take turns having a friend take their picture by the rock. Dinner is included at the airport … then another long wait for our flight since it's a night-owl one. Much later fly to Hong Kong.

DragonAir KA701Guilin - Hong Kong9:25 PM - 10:40 PM1:15.

Other than being a late evening/night flight, this one goes smoothly. However by the time we get our luggage and on the bus (11:40), get to the hotel (12:20), and have the bags delivered, I don't get to bed until about 1:30 AM. (B,D) Hotel: Marco Polo Hong Kong Hotel (3 nights) This is my least favorite hotel of the trip. It's nice, but by comparison: smallest room, least choices of (western) dishes for breakfast, and unlike other hotels which have given us at least one free bottle of drinking water a day, this hotel gives just one bottle (total) for the 3 days. Cheap-skates!!! But Hong Kong is in it for the $$$$$.

Day 16 (15), Monday, May 8 Hong Kong
After about 3 hours sleep. This is a huge hotel complex - easy to get lost in. Out early for a quick walk-around. Hong Kong - the money oriented town. After a so-so breakfast, off on the city tour at 9. This morning's sightseeing begins with a cable car up to VICTORIA PEAK for panoramic vistas of this one-of-a-kind port city. Take the bus back down (hope the brakes hold) the hill. Continue to STANLEY MARKET, a narrow street jammed with stalls offering clothing, arts and crafts (for more of our money) where we have to very careful to follow our leader through the massive maze - no time for shopping - we would be lost and have no way to get back with the group (just take a taxi back to the hotel). There is some time available at the end for some shopping and I buy an extra small duffle/carry-on for all of the suitcase overflow. Then to Repulse Bay, a popular beach area, and on to the Aberdeen Bay fishing village. Back to the hotel about 2:30. The afternoon and evening are free for independent exploration. Time for some walking around and get a HRC shirt for a friend. Tonight maybe (not!) an optional sunset cruise on Hong Kong's magnificent harbor (B)

HONG KONG OPTIONAL TOURS
Pre-Dinner Cocktail Cruise Spend the evening enjoying unlimited free drinks from our open bar on board our authentic Chinese Junk as she sails within the harbor. Watch the world's greatest view turn into the world's greatest light show. (no thanks - I don't drink so why pay an exorbitant price?)

Day 17 (16), Tuesday, May 9 Hong Kong
A full free day to explore this exciting city. Join one of the optional excursions to view the giant Buddha on the island of Lantau or an excursion to learn about Hong Kong's history before the British colonized the area.

As we wait in the lobby this morning for our tour, there are many young ladies around (middle school and high school age) in what looks like team shirts. It's a swim team all the way from Wales who have come half way around the world to compete in an international swim competition.

HONG KONG OPTIONAL TOURS
Lantau Island Monastery Tour Begin by sailing on an air-conditioned ferry or hovercraft (oops - someone changed the plans - we take a small cramped mini-bus to a bus terminal, then switch to a Lantau-liscensed bus to reach Silvermine Bay. Then take winding roads to Cheung Sha Beach where waters kissing sand across the coast form a lovely (not really) picture. Back on the road, head for Tai Oi Village for a tour of this settlement. It used to be a very active fishing village with over 200 boats. Now only about a dozen are active (and on long cruises.) All the fish, etc. in the markets, which used to be caught and sold by local fishermen, is now imported from Japan, other sites in China, Australia, California, South America, etc. The fishermen have found a much more lucrative job: businessmen. It's the most interesting stop of the tour. It's the first part of Hong Kong to be settled. We are told that Hong Kong means "fragrant harbor" and this one is surely "fragrant." Then the bus has to climb a steep, narrow one lane road to the Po Lin Monastery. The Great Bronze Buddha is adjacent to the monastery, perched on the Ngong Ping Plateau. At least it's MUCH cooler up here - we need that. We are given the chance to enter the museum where Sarira Buddhist relics are on display. Enjoy a Chinese-style vegetarian lunch in the Monastery (not bad!). After that, another steep decline for the bus - brakes very necessary or we'll be on a run-a-way. Back to the bus terminal to change to another bus to get back to the hotel - oops, it's broken down. We have a 40 minute wait for a replacement to be found. We never got that boat ride - they "lied.". Very nice tour, well worth the price.

Historic Hong Kong Tour This tour operates daily and in approximately 5 hours. Depart the hotel lobby for Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island. Stop at Queen's Street - Nam Pak Hong to see the trading of Chinese herbs and dried seafood. Visit famous Hollywood Road where we find Man Mo Temple, the oldest city temple. Pass by the Old Governor House and drive to Kowloon to visit an ancient bird market. Last stop is Kowloon's Walled City Park, an excellent example of a classical southern Chinese garden. It is divided into eight different landscaped zones, each with their own characteristics. - NOT OFFERED. Bah, humbug!!!

This evening is the perfect (?) finale to a great adventure as we're hosted at a (not-so) special FAREWELL DINNER for at least for some of us. 17 of the original 37 (and our Tour Director, Pam) are going on to Bangkok. (B,D)

Day 18 (17), Wednesday, May 10 Hong Kong-Bangkok, Thailand
I'm not buying any souvenirs here - after all, so many souvenirs are "made in Hong Kong" that I don't need any more. Free morning = re-re-re-re-pack trying to get things organized. The time to wait for a while. Lunch NOT included (check out 7-11 for snacks) At 11:30 transfer to the airport for more waiting. Today fly to exotic Bangkok. (B) Hotel: Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers (3 nights)

Cathay Pacific CX751Hong Kong - Bangkok2:15 PM - 3:45 PM2:30.

Yes, it's THAT airline again but this time we have a different type of aircraft with better seating, both width and leg room. Arrive at 3:45 but not to the hotel until about 5:30.

Time for a short 10-minute orientation walk around the hotel. Later a special: "Pam Special" - Tuk Tuk ride to the Night Market. A Tuk-Tuk is a variation on the Beijing Pedi-cab. This one is a kamikaze driven motorized (motorcycle) version. There are thousands of them in Bangkok. Riding in/on one is quite an experience - but lots of fun (if we don't have a heart-attack). The night market is 'neat' and Pam helps me find a couple of very nice Thai-silk scarves for gifts, and a short kimono for me. Then it's time to brave another Tuk-Tuk ride back to the hotel (about 9). It's been a GREAT evening. To bed about 10:45.

Day 19 (18), Thursday, May 11 Bangkok
Off at 8 to get to our first stop right when it opens. There is no better way to begin our discovery of Thailand than at the GRAND PALACE, (which makes the Forbidden City in Beijing look like a low-rent district) the truly grand seat of the court of old Siam. Fabulous. Next circle the block to get to the adjoining the royal temple, WAT PHRA KEO, housing the 31-inch Emerald Buddha and the RECLINING BUDDHA (as long as 3 large busses). We get caught here for about 20 minutes in a brief rain shower. Then back to the hotel. Special note: the local organizers have a very welcome feature as we get back to the bus to end each part of the walking: the bus driver will have cooled (almost frozen) towelettes to help us "wipe or brow" and cool off. VERY welcome.

The afternoon is free and I have made arrangements with the local tour director to get to the Bangkok HRC for another shirt for a friend (bus and kamikaze tuk tuk). The evening is free since we can't get the scheduled optional river dinner cruise; overbooked so we have to wait until tomorrow night. Dinner courtesy of 7-11. (B)

Day 20 (19), Friday, May 12 Bangkok
A full day at leisure for us to explore this fascinating city. We join an optional excursions to the floating markets with a stop at the Rose Garden and a folklore performance. Later an evening Dinner cruise on the river. (B)

BANGKOK OPTIONAL TOURS
West Thailand / Floating Markets / Rose Garden / Cultural Village Show We make a swing west and north through 5 provinces of Thailand. First we pass by the salt paddies where they take in sea water and let it evaporate, then collect the salt (strictly for local Thai consumption - no export). Next is a drive through the home town of the original "Siamese Twins", Ching and Chang back in the mid 19th century. The first stop is at a place (Nakom Pathon) where they produce coconut sugar (and we get to sample some). After that a short drive to where we board a "James Bond boat" (named after the style used in the movie "The Man With the Golden Gun" which was filmed here. The 30 minute dash through the canals ends at the Floating Markets where all the vendors gather to sell directly from their own boats. Next up is a drive to the Rose(less) Gardens which is now a picturesque country resort, situated 32k west of Bangkok. It consists of over 50 acres of tropical paradise with flower gardens (no roses), orchards and a typical Thai village. We can't get to see much of the gardens since a "monsoon" rain starts and lasts for over an hour (as we have a nice buffet lunch in the restaurant). The Thai village show starts at 14:15 and we see ordination into the monk-hood, fingernail dance, Thai boxing, hill-tribe dance, sword-fighting, elephants at work, and folk dancing. Finally back to the hotel after 5. It's been a great day.

Loy Nava River Dinner Cruise. After a short break, at 6 PM, go onboard a dinner sampan for a cruise down the river to see the lights and enjoy a (Farewell) Dinner on board with music and entertainment. It's a two hour cruise from 6 to 8. This turns out nice but not up to expectations.

Back to the hotel just after 8 with enough time to re-re-re-pack for the trip home. I'm really glad that I signed up for the Bangkok extension to the China trip. Very nice.

Day 21 (20), Saturday, May 13 Start Home
Just enough time for breakfast then off to the airport at 8:15. At least it's not "Friday the Thirteenth". My homebound flight begins on this extremely long day. By my calculation, it will be 39 hours long (making up for that 9 hour long Monday on the way west). (B)

Cathay Pacific CX754Bangkok - Hong Kong11:15AM - 3:15 PM3:001:25
Cathay Pacific CX872Hong Kong - San Francisco4:40 PM - 1:45 PM12:059:52

OK, not too bad so far - same plane configuration as from Hong Kong to Bangkok. For lunch, they were out of everything but fish - so I skip that. But there's still another flight to worry about. Long, long, long, long walk through the Hong Kong terminal to get to my next flight. At least we don't have to go through "Immigration."

Yes, another Sardine Hell-lines. It's one of their 747's again, but at least it's configured a bit differently - slightly more leg room (I CAN get my knees in) but the seats are still very narrow. It's another overnight flight - and I have never been able to sleep on an airplane, particularly when I'm so crowded in. For dinner, they were out of everything but fish or Chinese UFO - so I skipped it - again. (censored). At least the breakfast is good. Also with a good tailwind (instead of an up to 100mph headwind coming over), it's a shorter flight time.

Day 22 (x), Sunday, May 14. Finally arrive Home
On arrival, spot random luggage check by customs. Seems they are concerned about contraband, particularly rip-off versions of software, music, movies, … and pornography. They really make a mess of my luggage but I manage to cram everything back into my once-neatly-packed bags. From landing in San Francisco to landing in Houston, it's turns out to take 20:30 to get from San Francisco to Houston. That's over half the total flight time and means a whole day and a half to get home. Horrors!!!!

I try for a better flight connection going back to Houston, but no luck, The only flight into Dallas DFW gets in too late for a connection into Houston. It's a LONG wait for my midnight flight to Chicago. I'm going to be very careful about tour-company air arrangements from here on.

This is a "shut-eye" flight: the flight attendants imply sit down, shut up, turn off the lights, and go to sleep. We're going to get some shut-eye ourselves. They basically disappear for the entire flight. No refreshments at all.

American AA1608San Francisco - Chicago11: 37 PM - 5:42 AM4:053:03
American AA525Chicago - Houston8:45 AM - 12:15 PM3:3037:00

Coming off the plane, we find that it's really cool - almost cold - here in Chicago. Wow - get off one plane at that gate, walk 50 feet, and I'm at the next gate. That's happened only once before on my 200 or so flights. However, it's over 2 hours until the next flight. I've flown through Chicago once before - and dreaded going through again, but this much be a newer terminal - much nicer. At least it's ALMOST over. Oh, oh, We get on the plane and there's some loud noises - maintenance. There's a problem with the brakes. We're delayed about 40 minutes until they get them fixed. The plane is almost empty - about 6 people in first class and no more than two dozen back in cabin class. I've never flown on a flight that was so empty. It's now raining so a long long long taxi to our takeoff. Then shortly after takeoff, we're told that they are having trouble with the weather radar (not the regular radar) and will have to fly visual around the storms hunting for the best way through. By the time they circle around a few times to the west of the storms (no luck) they finally decide to take an eastern route down through eastern Louisiana adding another 40-50 minutes to the flight.

Luggage through the carousel fairly quickly, 20 minutes wait for the shuttle then a taxi ride home - about 2 PM. I'm tired. There are over 3000 spam messages and about 800 "real" messages in my email to go through. No chance for getting all that done. I quit early and go to bed.

It's been quite a trip. I'm very glad that I went and got to see the major sites "up close and personal" but have no interest in returning. Yes, I'm still looking at the Trans-Siberia / Trans-Mongolia rail and air trip from Moscow to Beijing next year but that one won't repeat any of this except for a bit in and around the city of Beijing.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge



Some extra pictures since there was so much to see.

OPTIONAL TOURS / EXCURSIONS:
Guilin Flute Caves $21 No thanks
Hong Kong Cocktail Cruise $39 No thanks
Hong Kong Lantau Island Monastery $69 yes (good)
Hong Kong Historic Hong Kong $43 not offered
Bangkok Rose Garden & Floating Markets $56 yes (excellent)
Bangkok River Dinner Cruise $42 yes (over rated)

HOTELS: (all are either 2 or 3 night accommodations and are very nice with good breakfasts; but some I like much better than others)
Apr 25 - 27 3 nights BEIJING Kempinski Hotel Beijing Lufthansa Center (D) 4*
Apr 28 - 29 2 nights XI'AN Shangri-La Golden Flower (SF) 5*
Apr 30 - May 2 3 nights CRUISE Victoria Katarina 3
May 3 - 4 2 nights SHANGHAI The St. Regis Shanghai (D) 6
May 5 - 6 2 nights GUILIN Sheraton Guilin Hotel (F) 3+
May 7 - 9 3 nights HONG KONG Marco Polo Hong Kong Hotel (SF) 3-
May 10 - 12 3 nights BANGKOK Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers (MD) 5

FLIGHTS:
FlightFrom - ToTimesflightlayover
total
American AA1300Houston - Dallas5:00 PM - 6:08 PM1:081:53
American AA1415Dallas - San Francisco8:01 PM - 9:46 PM3:453:34
Cathay Pacific CX873San Francisco - Hong Kong1:20 AM - 6:25 AM14:051:40
DragonAir KA900Hong Kong - Beijing8:05 AM - 11:20 AM3:1529:20
China Eastern MU2110Beijing - Xi'an1:40 PM - 3:30 PM1:50.
Huinan Air HU7268Xi'an - Chongqing4:15 PM - 5:45 PM1:30.
Shanghai Air FM9366Yichang - Shanghai4:00 PM - 5:30 PM1:30.
China Southern CZ3252Shanghai - Guilin 2:55 PM - 5:00 PM2:05.
DragonAir KA701Guilin - Hong Kong9:25 PM - 10:40 PM1:15.
Cathay Pacific CX751Hong Kong - Bangkok2:15 PM - 3:45 PM2:30.
Cathay Pacific CX754Bangkok - Hong Kong11:15AM - 3:15 PM3:001:25
Cathay Pacific CX872Hong Kong - San Francisco4:40 PM - 1:45 PM12:059:52
American AA1608San Francisco - Chicago11: 37 PM - 5:42 AM4:053:03
American AA525Chicago - Houston8:45 AM - 12:15 PM3:3037:00


Victoria Katarina - Foggy-Smoggy River Cruise Ship
Victoria Cruises celebrates its 10th anniversary of sailing the Yangtze River in China with its newest river cruise ship the Victoria Katarina. The Victoria Katarina is Victoria's largest Yangtze River ship, with room for 266 passengers in 133 cabins.

The Victoria Katarina has four levels of cabins and suites (119 standard rooms, six junior suites, six deluxe suites and two Shangri-la suites) for a passenger capacity of 266. A standard cabin has over 190 square feet. Junior suites are similar in design to standard cabins but more spacious. Deluxe accommodations feature private living areas; and the luxurious Shangri-la suites boast a dining area and an even larger private balcony. The launch of the Victoria Katarina marks another milestone - it is the first ship that Victoria Cruises had built, and it features a slightly different design than the other vessels in the fleet. The fourth floor of the ship, where most of the public facilities are located, is larger and more spacious. The change in layout is a result of customer input that Victoria Cruises has gathered over the past 10 years.

The Victoria Katarina is part of Victoria's new generation of ships, which feature:
Private balconies in ALL cabins providing guests with ample opportunities for viewing the magnificent Foggy-Smoggy River scenery (such as it isn't)
Satellite television in ALL cabins with HBO and BBC broadcasts (sometimes)
Full bathtubs and showers in all cabins
More spacious public areas including the fitness room and mini-spa
Conference facilities on all ships
Internet access, instant fax services and cell phones for international phone calls except that the speed is even slower than dial-up and very expensive
International English-speaking cruise directors
Excellent Chinese cuisine with western selections

The Victoria Katarina is air conditioned, including all cabins. The ship is smoke free, except for a small, designated smoking area in the Yangtze Club, as well as on the outside decks and main lobby. On-board services on the Victoria Katarina include a beauty salon (for hairstyling, massages, facials, or acupuncture), fitness room, mini-spa, library (took a while to find it) with Internet access (slower than dial-up), gift shop, and doctor's office.

CUISINE: All meals on board consist of western style and local food alike that has been adjusted to suit the tastes of international passengers. Breakfast is served buffet style. Most items are Western but a small array of Chinese breakfast items are also available. Lunch is also a buffet and is a mix of Western and Chinese foods. Selections change daily. Dinner is served Chinese style on a lazy Susan. Most of the dinner offerings are Chinese food but one Western item is available each night. Meals are served in a single sitting. There are tables for ten, and seating will be assigned for all meals. However they have the same "all the wine we want" or else ... Nothing. Awful-Lon. Bah, humbug!

Victoria Katarina Technical Data: Built: 2004; Length: 317 ft.; Crew members: 128; Cabins: 119; 6 Jr. Suites; 6 Deluxe Suites; 2 Shangri-La Suites