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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Will be flying home to Texas in 2010 after all

Last year when we decided to keep the boat in Malaysia for a year so that we could do SE Asia land/air travel, we did not plan for both of us to make a trip home in 2010. Bill would make his annual trip home to Houston in November 2010 for the required VA medical examination and renewal of his prescription, but to save money I would remain on the boat in Malaysia.

At the time we made those plans we did not realize that one must attend to renewal of captains license and TWIC 6 months before their expiration. Both our USCG Merchant Marine captain licenses and our TWICs expire in May 2011. I had figured we would fly home from Egypt in late April 2011 to attend to those renewals. Ah-hah! The new information required that we reevaluate those plans.

Today we purchased round-trips flights from Langawi to Singapore and from Singapore to Houston, stopping briefly each way at Tokyo. We will be in Houston from October 27 until November 29. Hopefully, we can renew both our TWIC and Merchant Marine licenses during that time frame. This will still provide us ample time after our return to Langkawi to provision the boat and sail to Phuket for a few weeks before beginning those dreaded long passages to India and up the Red Sea.

So we do both get to enjoy our annual trip home in 2010 ---- just a bit earlier in the year than usual. We will celebrate Thanksgiving with the family this year instead of Christmas.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Old friends arrive and new friends depart

We stuck our heads out at 0700 this morning........hoping to say goodbye to Australian friends Reese and Linda on S/V Windy Spirit who have been docked just a few slips away from us for the past 7 months. Unfortunately they and their catamaran were nowhere in sight. They must have departed at first light to meet up with the Sail Malaysia East Rally. Reese and Linda decided that Malaysia was just too far from Australia, so they are leisurely sailing eastward with hopes of going over the top of Papua New Guinea and possibly to Vanautu as they make their way back towards Australia. We wish them safe voyage and hope they don't have to endure too much upwind sailing.

But as our newer friends depart, older friends arrive.

We met Bill and Amy on S/V Estrellita at Hiva Oa in the Marqueses of French Polynesia in June 2008. They went one direction and we another. A couple of months later we met again in Bora Bora. Again we went our separate ways. Another couple of months later we met again in Vava'U in the Kingdom of Tonga. In October S/V Estrellita headed north and S/V BeBe headed south. We sailed to New Zealand; then back north to Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore. Bill and Amy sailed to Samoa, Palau, Truk, the Philippines and other island groups north of the equator. We have stayed in touch off and on via email and Facebook, but honestly did not think we would meet up again. Their stories and photos often made Bill and I wish that we had followed their "path less traveled." We loved New Zealand, Vanuatu and New Caledonia; but Australia (most especially The Great Barrier Reef) was a huge disappointment for us. Heck, we could have followed the much more interesting route of S/V Estrellita and simply visited New Zealand via airplane. Wish we had put a lot more thought into our route planning before we reached the turning point of Tonga.

It was so great to see Bill and Amy again and catching up on stories of their adventures. Last evening Amy was telling us a story and mentioned a boat they had met with 2 small adopted Chinese girls. S/V Red Thread!! What a small world! We had met S/V Red Thread back in the Caribbean. They sailed to Galapagos, Easter Island, Chile (where a storm caught them at anchor and damaged the boat on rocks and took a year to repair), back to Easter Island and all the way through the South and North Pacific to Hong Kong. They sailed the farthest distance in one year of any cruising boat we have every heard of -- almost 15,000 NM from southern tip of Chile to Hong Kong in just under 12 months. They met Bill and Amy somewhere near the end of that long journey to Hong Kong. Such a huge ocean and 2 boats we know happen to meet up.

Love catching up with old friends!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Costs of Cruising



Money -- that topic no one likes to talk about. Someone needs to tell the truth.

Like many cruisers and sailors, I follow a number of online sailing groups. The question of how much it costs to cruise is frequently asked by those contemplating casting off the dock lines. It seems that most people think this can be done on a tight budget. And I guess it can if you don't mind living without any conveniences on a spartan boat and eating like you are in 1850 in the mountain backwoods. And not doing any land travel at those exotic destinations......which seems to us to negate the entire concept of sailing around to different countries. The old adage is that it will cost as much as you have to spend......which does seem to be true.

Bill and I do not live an extravagant lifestyle We did that back in our thirties and are SO over living in that manner. We live pretty simply on the boat. I enjoy cooking and baking, and Bill enjoys the dishes I create. But we also enjoy occasional treats at nice restaurants. Bill drinks 2 beers daily but I rarely drink alcohol We both enjoy a bottle of good wine with certain foods. We prefer a beautiful quiet anchorage over a marina most of the time; although it seems we have spent an inordinate amount of time in marinas in New Zealand, Australia and now Malaysia. We do try to make an annual trip back to the States to visit family and friends. That is a splurge for me, but Bill must make an annual trip home for medical visits to the VA hospital for check-ups. We wear the typical sailor clothing; gave up being clothes horses long ago.

That description should provide you with a good idea of our cruising lifestyle. Not extravagant but also definitely not basic. We do carry insurance on our boat since it is our home and does represent a substantial financial asset. And learning of all the boats lost in the South Pacific over the past couple of years has reinforced our decision to continue to carry full insurance on the boat. We do realize that if the boat is damaged then we are responsible for paying for the environmental damage that might result, especially from diesel carried in the main tank. The cost of that alone is enough to make us realize that in today's world boats definitely need to be insured.

Most people we have met out cruising only have a vague idea of how much they are spending to cruise. We haven't met anyone who truly tracks all costs.

We do.

I write down what we have spent every single time we return to the boat from an outing. This only takes a moment and quickly became a habit when we first moved aboard. After all, I did accounting for decades and was accustomed to keeping track of money. For example, Bill went for a walk this afternoon and brought back an ice cream for me. (I know; isn't he sweet!) The ice cream cost only 2.5 ringitt. I converted that to US dollars and recorded 77 cents in my 'budget' book. At the end of each month I tally everything spent and transfer the data to an Excel workbook. I have done this since the first day we moved aboard. If you track every penny spent, it adds up to more than one might guess.

Before we started cruising, we had hoped to do this minimal lifestyle for $35,000 per year. People in the online sailing groups thought that was way too high. But I knew it actually was less than realistic and would require cutting corners as tight as possible. I figured a more realistic figure would be in the neighborhood of 50 to 60k annually. Another old adage is that once you have compiled a cruising budget; double it; and that will be about what you will actually spend.

We recently celebrated our 4th anniversary of living aboard full-time. Today I decided to compare the percentages of where our money has been spent during that time. Blogger does not allow me to upload an Excel spreadsheet, so I have uploaded a screen shot of the totals. Click on the image for a larger view. Haul-outs are not included in the percentages of annual expenditures of each category. We prefer to look at the percentages of monthly expenditures and keep haul-outs separate because we plan to do haul-out bi-annually in the future. The grand totals include our haul-outs. That explains why the total spent is 110.4%. The negative amount shown in year 4 for charts, etc., comes from the sale of used guides when we finished the Pacific. We did make a trip home in Year Three, but the cost was not separated from the Tours and Sightseeing that year. I decided it was not worth my time to dig back and separate those costs since both involve air/land travel.

Others might be able to cruise on less money, but we are pretty careful and these have been our true costs. The Entertainment category includes all restaurant and bar visits. Customs and Fees was the category that surprised us. We had no idea before we started this venture that it would cost so much for clearance fees. And we handle clearances ourselves in all countries that do not require the services of an agent. If we used agents at every country then those costs would be considerably higher. The category of Boat Supplies and Maintenance includes every last dime spent to maintain the boat. This includes filters, boat soap, wax......every little expense.....not just the replacement parts that most sailors consider maintenance costs. Those water filters and that little bottle of polish to keep the stainless steel gleaming are just as much costs of boat maintenance as replacement pumps or a new radio.

And, when you gasp at the total spent for routine maintenance..........remember..........this is for an excellent Amel Super Maramu 2000 yacht in perfect condition that was built and left the factory in January 2003. And Bill does all the work himself except for the occasional wash and wax in lower cost labor areas such as Malaysia. Maintenance on an older boat or different quality construction boat will likely cost more. Or if you must pay professionals for their labor instead of acting as your own mechanic, refrigeration specialist, electrician, rigger, plumber, computer consultant, etc.

If you are going to be a cruiser, you must be prepared to wear a lot of hats!






Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sad to learn of another boat lost on reef

We were saddened to learn that S/V Airwego was lost on a reef in Samoa. We were just casual acquaintances of Mike and Cindy on S/V Airwego and have not had contact with them in over a year. But as cruisers and fellow sailors, our thoughts go out to them. How horrible to lose your home!

S/V Airwego was following S/V Charisma (an Amel Mango owned by our friends Alan and Kristen) through a narrow pass through reef. Charisma made it through the pass without incident, but Airwego apparently clipped the side of the pass. The ocean swell and breaking waves put their boat up onto the reef. This was during low tide. As the tide came in the boat was holed and it filled with water. Long story short: they saved as much as they could from the boat. A tug was sent out to pump out the diesel to reduce environmental damage.

Mike and Cindy were en route to Hawaii on their return to the USA. We feel their loss and wish them the best on whatever course life takes them now.

This makes 6 boats that we have known personally that have been lost since we transited the South Pacific in 2008. One went down in a hurricane; one filled with water and sank enroute between New Zealand and Fiji last May; one was lost in the tsunami in Samoa last fall (spring south of the equator); and three were lost on reefs. Plus, we know of 3 other boats that were lost on reefs; but we did not personally know the owners. Doesn't that seem like an awfully high number of cruising yachts lost in just one ocean in 18 months!

I will be so very glad when we transit the Suez Canal and leave most of the reefs behind us for awhile.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Uploaded photos from China trip

Photos have now been uploaded to all the postings for our trip to Hong Kong & Kowloon, China and Macau. I still haven't done the Picassa album yet (and may never get around to that), but the blog photos are finished.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Celebrating 4 years of cruising aboard S/V BeBe

Recently someone asked us how many countries we have visited and how many miles we have sailed so far. Neither Bill nor I knew for certain. He guessed around 18,000 and I guessed just over 20,000 NM. We each guessed that we had visited a couple dozen countries. Turns out that neither of us was quite correct on either subject.

On 1 May 2010 we celebrated our 4th anniversary of living aboard S/V BeBe and cruising full-time. We are both still enjoying this somewhat different and quirky life and are not ready to contemplate becoming landlubbers again just yet. Being fortunate enough to make a month trip home to Houston each year to visit has helped with the usual cruiser dilemma of missing family and friends. And having family and friends visit us on the boat in exotic locations is always a treat for us. Having both the older grandchildren visit us this summer in SE Asia will be extra special. They are old enough to remember whatever we do on this trip and this will provide them with lifelong memories.

Today I added up the miles logged in our Yacht Log book. I keep a manual record of each time we move the boat, whether it is just around a point to a new anchorage or an ocean crossing. Logs are recorded by date, indicating place, latitude and longitude, sea and wind conditions, weather and temperature, whether used sails or engine or both, and remarks about the location/trip, along with total miles traveled each day.

In the past 4 years we have visited 35 countries, some more than once.
Miles sailed:

2006 --- 1848.65 (8 months) Eastern Caribbean; USVI to Trinidad to Bonaire & return USVI
2007 --- 2447.74 Eastern Caribbean; ABCs; Cartagena; San Blas; Panama
2008 --- 8593.60 Panama; Galapagos; South Pacific to Tonga to New Zealand
2009 --- 6282.61 New Zealand; Vanuatu; New Caledonia; Australia; Indonesia; Singapore;
Malaysia.

Total sailed to date: 19,172.9 nautical miles

And we are only just past half-way around!

Back on the boat

The day before we departed for our flight to China last month, the saltwater pump for the air-conditioning systems developed a leak. When Bill touched the plug bolt it literally disintegrated into tiny particles as if it were made from dried clay rather than stainless steel. That is what happens to metals that are in contact with saltwater for 7 years. Unfortunately, we did not have a 10mm fine thread bolt. We have several small boxes of various sizes of stainless steel screws, bolts, washers and nuts, but the few 10mm bolts in our tool supplies were regular thread.

Well, that should not be a problem. We would buy whatever 10mm fine thread bolt was available and replace it with a stainless steel one later, when we had more time to find one. This proved to be impossible. There were no 10mm fine thread bolts of any type metal to be found in this part of Malaysia on that particular day. Bill plugged the hole and we instructed Arab to simply open the hatches and air out the boat several times weekly while we were on this trip. Arab works for the marina and usually takes care of our boat during our absence. Normally Arab runs the air-conditioners for 3 hours twice per week to dry out the interior of the boat while we are away; this is enough to prevent any mildew or mold from growing inside the boat.

We asked Matt, the guy who cleans our boat, to try and locate two 10mm plug bolts of either bronze or stainless steel while we were gone. Matt had a friend who said he would search for the bolts; we gave Matt more than ample money to cover his friend's time and to buy the bolts. Then we left for China and tried not to think of the leaking pump. When we had internet during our trip, Bill sourced a new pump in the USA and had it shipped to our son's home. The grandkids are flying to Singapore on June 4 and will bring that pump.

When we returned to the boat on Sunday morning, sitting on top of the companionway were two 10mm stainless steel fine thread plug bolts. Exactly what we needed. I'm guessing Matt's friend had to make a trip to Singapore to buy these bolts. Bill immediately got down in the engine room and had the pump going in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, now the pump started making a high-pitched whine. Bill took it apart yet again and replaced the bushing and seal. But when he touched the check-valve, one connection on the valve assembly crumbled into dust just like the plug had done last month. Seven years in saltwater really does destroy metal!!

For now, the pump is working again -- not leaking and without a check-valve and still making an intermittent whine. Our fingers are crossed that it will continue to work until the grandkids arrive in 3 weeks with the new pump. If not, then we will be sweating like most of the other people in this marina. Looking on the bright side, at least the failing pump is not one of those saltwater pumps necessary for operating the toilets or engine or generator or watermaker. We can live without air-conditioning for a few weeks if we absolutely must.

We have 533 photos from our China trip to wade through and title. I hope to upload a few to the China blogs in the next few days. This was an unforgettable trip. Feel very fortunate that we were able to see these places. And, once again, very glad to be back home aboard S/V BeBe.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Macau Casinos

Macau reminds me so much of Las Vegas....sans the entertainment and big name shows. The city is filled with large casinos. The most garish is the Grand Lisboa. It reminds Bill of something that should have been in the old Ghostbusters movie. You can just picture Gozer perched on one of the curved gold pinnacles. At the bottom of the tall gold tower with curved pinnacles there is a dome which sparkles with lights at night. And a multi-story large square building that is painted like a Greek nightmare. The square building is the casino; the Ghostbusters tall structure is the hotel; and we never learned what was in the large glittering dome. We weren't curious enough to walk over there to check it out.

Another big casino is the MGM Grand. The curved outdoor video screen on one corner was an interesting touch. Unfortunately, none of our photos came out because of the foggy weather. The multi-level multi-depth curved exterior on the tall building is also a touch of unusual architectural design. Whatever artist designed the large gold lion on the corner must have been high on something. There are muscles that do not exist on lions and the mane looks like rasta braids.

Today we walked through the cavernous Wynn casino. This casino seems to just go on and on, although there weren't many players at 10 a.m. when we strolled through. Upon entry to the upscale shopping mall attached to the Wynn casino, we found The Prosperity Tree rising up from the floor in all its golden glory. The Chinese love anything called prosperity and gold is symbolic to them for success and luck. A closed golden globe built into the floor opens up and a large glittering golden tree rises up as music plays. About 50 Chinese tourists were gathered around taking photos and wearing big smiles like this was a big deal or something. Once the tree was fully erect, it slowly turned to a bright green. When we later walked back out that entry area, the tree was retracted back down inside the globe in the floor. I have no idea how often this tree emerges each day, but the Chinese tourists really seemed to enjoy it. If you are a VIP or big winner at the Wynn casino, then you might get the privilege of pressing the start button for the Prosperity Tree. This tree display is repeated every half-hour for several hours each day. Tour buses stop by every half hour for all the Asian tourists to have their opportunity to watch the tree raise and lower. There was a crowd each time we walked through this area.

Walking around the sidewalks and looking at the casinos reminded us of 2 people from our past. One was Harold Polatschek, a man who was Bill's mentor in business for several years, beginning 38 years ago. Harold loved Las Vegas and was considered a high-roller out there. Harold received comp trips to Vegas. The casinos did that back then. His flights, hotels and meals were all paid for by casinos; so he made at least one trip monthly to gamble in Vegas. If Harold is still alive, he would be about 100 years old. His mother lived past the age of 100 so it is conceivable that Harold is still around, but we lost contact with him years ago.

The other person we knew who loved to gamble was Larry Ballenger. Larry was one of those people that you just had to love. He lived life to the fullest in everything he did. He was on top and bottom many times and he loved Las Vegas. Larry died years ago of a massive heart attack while in the throes of passion with his latest young wife....a perfect ending for him. When Larry went to Vegas his first big winnings on each trip were spent on expensive suits and watches. And when times were bad for him, he sold those expensive watches. But no matter how bad things got for him, he never sold his Cadillac convertibles that he kept in storage. He always managed to find a way to hang onto the Caddies. Anyway, Larry had a pair of bell-bottom jeans with a large yellow Tweety Bird embroidered up to the knee on the right leg. He called these his "good luck pants" and wore them each time he visited casinos in Vegas. He had once made a small winning at a casino when something happened to the pants he was wearing, either they ripped or something was spilled on him; I don't remember that detail. Rather than go to his room and change, Larry went to a hotel shop and spent about $800 for this pair of jeans. This was back in the early 1970s, and $800 was worth a lot more in those days. Then he returned to the casino and won really big. From that point forward, those were his good luck pants and he always wore them when he gambled. When he died, Larry still had those good luck pants.

The hundreds of watch shops and jewelry stores surrounding the casinos here in Macau made us think of Larry. And the Ermenegildo Zegna shop of nice suits in the shopping mall along with Prada and Versace and other expensive clothing lines also reminded us of Larry. So some things must never change. People who win in casinos still must like to immediately buy jewelry or watches and suits.

Friday we took a taxi back to the Fortaleza do Monte and walked the area. We saw the Leal Senado building, Senado Square, the Holy House of Mercy, the Lou Kau mansion, St. Dominic's Church, the Na Tcha Temple and the only remaining section of the Old City walls.

The Leal Senado building was originally built in 1784 and was the first municipal office, a function it maintains today. The name Leal Senado means Loyal Senate and derives from the formal title of the city bestowed by Portuguese King Dom John IV in 1654. The formal title of the city was "City of Our Name of God Macau, There is None More Loyal." Senado Square has been Macau's urban center for centuries. The curving black and white tiles on the ground and the fountain create a Mediterranean atmosphere. The black and white tiles pave the narrow pedestrian streets and alleyways up the hillside to the Ruins of St. Paul's. The streets are lined with shops of all kinds, some new and some very old.

The Holy House of Mercy was established by the first Bishop of Macau in 1569 and was modelled after one of the most prominent and oldest charitable organizations in Portugal. The Holy House of Mercy was responsible for the first western-style medical clinic and several other social welfare structures that still function to this day. The Lou Kau mansion was the home of guess who....Lou Kau. Built in 1889, this prominent Chinese merchant resided near the Senado Square. The home is a 2-storey, traditional gray brick courtyard house with the typical Chinese characteristics.

St. Dominic's Church was founded in 1587 by 3 Spanish Dominican priests who originally came from Acapulco in Mexico. Here the first Portuguese newspaper was published on Chinese soil. It was called "A Abelha da China" (The China Bee) and was first published on September 12, 1822.

The Na Tcha Temple was built in 1888 and is dedicated to the worship of Na Tcha. This was a new religion or god to us; never heard of this one and could find no information about this obscure deity. The temple is Buddhist and Taoist and is a most unimposing small structure located next to the Ruins of St. Paul's. Nearby stands the last surviving segment of the city's defense structures built as early as 1569. This wall segment is a remnant of an early Portuguese tradition of constructing defensive walls around their port settlements, a tradition also followed in Portuguese settlements in Africa and India. Most of the wall is constructed of a compound known locally as chunambo, an elaborate mixture of clay, soil, sand, rice straw, crushed rock and oyster shells compacted in successive layers.

All of these historical sites are within a short walking distance of one another. A good way for non-gamblers to spend a gray day if you are at all interested in history.

One thing that Bill found humorous was the Canadian College of Macau with a kindergarten on the ground level. Every college should include a kindergarten.

And something I found disgusting both in appearance and in appeal to palate was the Green Tea Cheesecake sold in McDonald's. We have seen just about everything flavored with green tea on this trip. Bet the McDonald's back in the States don't sell Green Tea Cheesecake. It really looked disgusting.

Tomorrow we will check out of the hotel at noon. Don't know what we will find to do until our flight departs for Singapore around midnight. When I originally planned this trip, our return flight was scheduled for 10:30 tomorrow morning. But Tiger Airways then changed the flight time until nearly midnight. Wish they had changed our flight to midnight Friday instead of midnight Saturday. Bill and I are both ready to be back home on the boat. As much as we have enjoyed this trip, it is time to go home. video

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Off to a rocky start in Macau

The fast ferry ride from Kowloon was smooth; and the nice large leather seats were comfortable; and the snacks of cake and Diet Coke for me and sandwich and beer for Bill were an unexpected treat after being on the train for 24 hours. So you could say that the Macau section of our vacation was off to a good start. That did not last.

Clearing into Macau took the standard 15 minutes, so that was quick and easy. Then we walked out to the hotel bus shuttle area.....where we stood in the heat for 1 full hour waiting for the shuttle to the Beverly Plaza Hotel. Upon arrival at the hotel registration desk we were informed that all the deluxe non-smoking rooms with queen size beds were occupied, and that we had a choice. We could accept a smoking room with queen bed; or we could accept a non-smoking room with twin beds; or we could pay an additional 300 HKD and have the last non-smoking room with a queen size bed. People who know me will know what my reaction to that nonsense was....we had prepaid for a non-smoking room with a queen size bed and there was 1 available, so why does this moron think I am going to pay an additional fee for what I have already paid for! They wanted me to pay more simply because there was only 1 such room available when we checked in. Absurd!

I knew I had better shut my mouth and let Bill handle it, and he did just that. Bill kept repeating "I do not accept your solution." After at least the 10th time of going round and round and Bill repeating the same thing, the manager gave us the room. The entire time I was muttering that there is going to be one really bad review on Tripadvisor and Agoda for this hotel stay,

Finally got the the room and it was nice. Okay, 2 negatives so far on this visit: excessive wait for the shuttle and trying to rip us off for the room. Maybe it would get better. We were tired and decided room service for dinner would be nice....until we read the menu. Bill wanted either a good hamburger or a steak after all the Asian food of recent weeks.

The room service menu offered (among other strange things):
Double-Boiled Beef with Green Carrot and Carrot
Stewed Dry Duck Kidney with Vegetable Soup
Double-Boiled Chicken with Medlar and Whelk (What do you think that is?)
Steamed Preserved Meat with Salted Fish (Oh yeah, count on us eating that.)
Fried Lotus Root Mixed with Deep-Fried Dried Codfish Ball
Sauteed Egg White with Frog's Ovary (What!!!)
Marine Delicacies with Con Pay in Basin (Uh.....okay.)
Braised Fish-Air Bladder with Goose's Web and Mushroom in Casserole
Double-Boiled Shark's Fin with Ham and Crown Conchs
Chicken Feet Thai Style
Gizzard with Chili and Sesame Oil
Braised Pig's Ear with Herb Sauce
Fried Pigeon with Fresh Herbs
Braised Pigtail with Lotus Root in Casserole
Fried Shredded Ostrich with Sauce
and Bill's favorites:
Braised Fish's Head with Bean Curd in Casserole
Steamed Fish Head with Pepper

We walked a mile to the nearest McDonald's instead of enjoying room service. Don't think we will be eating in this hotel. By the way, we are the only 2 westerners staying in the Beverly Plaza Hotel, and we are the only room occupants on this floor. So the attempt to get more money from us at registration was a scam.

This morning we checked the Macau Tourism website and decided on a few historic places that might be interesting. We wrote down the names of 2 places from the tourism website and attempted to take a taxi to either place. Four taxi drivers had no idea where these places are located. Finally I asked a taxi driver to take us to the Macau Tourism Center. She radioed her dispatcher and got directions and we headed off. A few blocks later I realized she was going the wrong way because I had seen this office shortly after we left the ferry terminal yesterday. We gave up and told her to take us to the ferry dock, where we caught a hotel shuttle bus to the big Wynn hotel and casino and walked back to our hotel. The taxi drivers all carry a book of the restaurants and hotels and casinos with the names and addresses written in Chinese characters; but they don't know anything about the historic places or museums in this city. By this point I was so annoyed with Macau that nothing was going to make me enjoy this place. I decided to read instead, and Bill got online to further research places to see in Macau. He got the hotel desk clerk to write the name of one in Chinese characters so we could take a taxi, and we tried once again. This trip was successful and we found a lively tourist section of Macau.

The Sao Paulo Ruins, the Monte Fortress and the Macau museum were a great way to while away the afternoon. The museum provided details of the history of Macau from 6,000 years ago through the 1960s. Merchant ships traveling SE Asia and China began calling on Macau during the 5th century. Portuguese sailor Jorge Alvares was the first westerner to arrive in Macau (China) in 1513. Following a ship wreck in 1535, Portuguese traders were allowed to anchor ships in Macau's harbors and the right to carry out trading activities, though not the right to stay onshore. Around 1552, the Portuguese obtained temporary permission to erect storage sheds onshore in order to dry out goods drenched by sea water. They later built some rudimentary stone-houses around the area now called Nam Van. But not until 1557 did the Portuguese establish a permanent settlement in Macau at an annual rent of 500 taels of silver. In 1557 the Ming court gave consent for a permanent and official Portuguese trade base at Macau. Later that year, the Portuguese established a walled village in Macau. Ground rent payments began in 1573. China retained sovereignty and Chinese residents were subject to Chinese law, but the territory was under Portuguese administration. In 1582 a land lease was signed, and annual rent was paid. Portugal administered Macau for 442 years, first as a trading post and later as a Portuguese territory. Macau was handed back to China in 1999. It was the last European territory in Asia. Today Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China. As a SAR, like Hong Kong, Macau cherishes certain rights and freedoms not afforded to citizens of mainland China.

The Sao Paulo Ruins, or the Ruins of St. Paul's, refer to the remaining facade of what was originally the Cathedral of St. Paul. The cathedral was built by the Jesuits between 1582 to 1602 and was the largest Catholic church in Asia at the time. It was destroyed by fire during a typhoon in 1835. Nothing remains except the facade and the many stone steps leading up to it. The site is well marked indicating where the original support columns stood. The tombs along the right side remain and are visible beneath glass panels. The Fortaleza do Monte overlooks the cathedral ruins.

These 2 photos were taken from the second level of a platform erected behind the remaining facade of St. Paul's.



The Monte Fortress, or more accurately the Fortaleza do Monte, is on top of 1 of the 7 hills of Macau. It was constructed from 1617 to 1626 and played a very important role in defending Macao against the invasion of Holland. The Fortress is square shaped; each side is about 100 meters long, with walls around 9 meters high. The four corners of the fortress project out as bastions; its outside wall was built with rammed earth and is still very stable. The fortress became the military center for Macau. The walls had many cutouts which served as supports for the 32 cannons used to defend against foreign attacks. Monte Fortress was equipped with a reservoir, warehouse and barracks. There was sufficient storage space for two years worth of ammunition and supplies. The Fortress was the residence of the Chief of Staff on City Defense and Superintendent of Macao before 1740. Later it became a forbidden military zone. Today it is a tourist attraction and a great place for a view of Macau.

There is a neat shopping/tourist district with narrow pedestrian alleyways leading up from several directions to the base of the steps to the ruins of St. Paul's. One of the most popular items sold along the alleyways are small Portuguese egg tarts. We bought a couple and returned to our hotel room for a treat with afternoon coffee. There was a shop called Ireland Potatoes that would be a big hit in the USA. They sold cups of excellent french fries, served either plain or with many choices of toppings...ranging from a meat sauce to pizza sauce and cheese to sour cream and various seasoning powders. We tried a cup with sour cream. Sour cream is not sold in Malaysia and we have missed that creamy luxury in a few favorite dishes, so a shared fatty cup of fries topped with sour cream was a decadent treat.

Bill found a restaurant online that we hope to try later tonight. So Macau is looking up after a poor start on this segment of our vacation.

Later....we went to a Japanese restaurant near the hotel for diiner. It was great! So good that we might return today or tomorrow for lunch to try their fried oyster sushi.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

2010-05-05 Train Beijing to Hong Kong & ferry to Macau

“It’s my life for the next 24 hours, so I have to get everything just right.”

That is what Bill said when his fidgeting was driving me nuts as we sat in our cabin waiting for the train to depart Beijing.

For travelers following in our footsteps, when the taxi drops you at the Beijing West Railway Station for the T97 train to Kowloon-Hong Kong Hung Hom Station, you must go down the stairs located at the far right-side facing the terminal. The sign says Immigration Checking or something like that. There is an Immigration line on the top level, but the train to Hong Kong is checked at the lower level. NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. You are supposed to arrive there no later than 90 minutes before scheduled departure. We arrived 2 hours before departure and went through the baggage screening on the lower level and found seats inside the tiny waiting area outside Customs. About 80 minutes before scheduled departure, the Customs officers appeared and let us pass through. Immigration clearance out of China was next. From there you go directly to the train. There is no departure waiting lounge as in Hong Kong or in Shanghai train stations.

So be forewarned, buy your bottles of water and whatever you plan to eat and drink for the next 25 hours BEFORE you get to the Beijing West Railway Station. Note: this is NOT the same station where you arrive on the train from Shanghai. There are no shops and nothing to buy at this station.

We had brought a very small loaf of bread and ½ jar peanut butter, granola bars, hot cocoa mixes and 1 packet of instant tomato soup. Of course, once on the train we didn’t want any of that. A woman came through the train cars selling hot meals and we bought 1 chicken and 1 ‘pig.” Meals cost 18 RMB each. The ‘pig’ was very spicy, so I ate that. Bill ate the chicken, but it was full of tiny pieces of bones. The vegetables were just cabbage, and that was okay. At least the rice was safe to eat. I would not recommend the train food; better to bring your own. Later Bill wandered to the last train car and found the dining car where they sell the same meals and a limited quantity of other things. He bought a small can of mixed nuts and some playing cards. He also found that they do sell bottles of drinking water in the dining car. Not certain that there are enough bottles for the entire trainload of passengers for 25 hours, but there were bottles of water for sale at the beginning of this trip.

The hotel had purchased these train tickets for us, for a service charge of 15%. Worth every bit of that for the convenience of having the tickets at the hotel instead of us having to search out the Beijing West train station days earlier and try to buy our own tickets……which, after seeing this station, we know would never have happened since no one at the station spoke English. The only problem (if you can consider it a problem) was that we requested Deluxe Soft Sleeper accommodations so that we could have a private western style toilet. Instead the hotel purchased regular Soft Sleeper tickets, which means 4 berths to each cabin and shared toilets at the end of each train car.

Luckily, this train was not filled to capacity as have been the other trains we have ridden in China. About 2/3 of the cabins in our car were occupied, and only a few of those were occupied by 4 persons. We had the whole cabin to ourselves. So in our case on this particular train, the only difference between the regular Soft Sleeper accommodations and the Deluxe Soft Sleeper accommodations was that we had to use a communal toilet. And, most important of all, there was one western-style toilet at one end of our train car and an Asian squat toilet at the other end. GREAT!! The 5 westerners in this car could use the regular toilet and all the Chinese could use that nasty squat thing. Most of the Chinese still do not understand western style toilets that one sits upon. They are accustomed to squatting over floor toilets. When they are forced to use western style toilets, quite often they will balance themselves with feet on the toilet seat and squat. We have seen the shoe prints, as well as the resulting filth. They need to print instructions for use in the few public toilet facilities that have 1 or 2 normal sit-down toilets.

Later…..the train has been underway for 6 hours. So much for seeing the countryside of China as we had hoped. It is raining and very foggy. Visibility is limited to about 300 yards from the train, so we aren’t seeing much. This part of China looks nothing like I expected China to be. It is flat like most of Texas.

There was one more random thought that I should have included in my previous posting. We are told that it is not possible to write Chinese characters with your left hand. People who are left-handed must learn how to write with their right hands. One girl we met said she uses her left hand for chopsticks and everything else, but she must use her right hand to write in Chinese. I could understand that when using the old quill pens or maybe even fountain pens. But why should that be true when using a ball point pen or sharp pencil. But several people insisted that it is impossible to write in Chinese with a left hand.

The train cabins have an electrical outlet. This allows us to use the laptop the whole time we are underway. An bonus benefit is that we can watch DVDs for hours to alleviate the boredom. I picked up a couple of books from the hotel so we would have something to read on this trip. But the one I got for Bill to read is by a British author and Bill can’t stand the style of writing. So, movies it is. One of the many DVDs we bought in Shanghai are 6 seasons of ‘The Sopranos’ and the first 6 episodes of the HBO series ‘Pacific’ so those should keep us occupied until we reach Hong Kong tomorrow afternoon.

In the evening we walked to the dining car at the rear of the train. Bill found beer. I found Pepsi. They had an actual menu with pictures and we ordered what turned out to be eggs with spring onion and ham bits cooked like a frittata. It was surprisingly good. Cost 35 RMB as best I recall, so not expensive for captive audience dining.

Thursday morning…..about 10:00 the train briefly stopped in Guangzhou. I finally figured out why the through trains make occasional stops. It is to have the toilet holding tanks pumped out. Maybe they take on additional water too. The only truck I saw was the pump out truck.

It is still raining and very gray with limited visibility. But the terrain within view is now more like I expected to see in China….lots of hills, wide rivers and terraced gardens and rice paddies. We passed through several small ancient villages, but most of the buildings in most of the towns are now built like tall boxes. Architecture is not appealing but functional. The farther south we traveled, the larger the towns or cities, still with huge areas of vegetable fields.
The train staff follow a routine that we don’t understand. The same routine was followed on each of the 3 trains we have ridden in China. Either at boarding or shortly after boarding, an attendant takes your paper ticket and gives you a rigid plastic card. We have yet to figure out what we are supposed to do with this plastic card. Shortly before arriving at your destination, the attendant returns and retrieves the plastic card and returns your paper ticket. We have no idea why they do this.

Bill got bored this morning. I didn’t want to watch any more DVDs and Bill didn’t want to read that British book. So he played with the computer and learned how to edit videos and add music and captions. That can be his job in the future because I have no interest in learning this skill. We returned to the dining car for another frittata shortly before noon. While there I shot a short video of the dining car before the waitress walked by and told me sternly, “No photo!” The reason of why they did not want photos taken in the almost empty dining car escapes me. But I complied and put away the camera.

We arrived at Hung Hom station in Kowloon precisely on scheduled time. We cleared into Hong Kong; found the ticket machine and bought tickets on the MRT subway to the Austin station; and were on our way within minutes. The Austin subway station is a few blocks from the China Ferry Terminal. Our tickets to Macau were for the 17:00 ferry, but we changed to the 15:00 ferry. Bill found a half-dozen polo shirts on sale in the mall in the lower level of the terminal building, and the shop accepted RMB. Somehow we had ended up with quite a surplus of Chinese yuan (RMB). Then he found a money changer to convert our remaining Chinese RMB to Singapore dollars. We already had a surplus of Hong Kong dollars left over from our stay here a few weeks ago, and Macau uses HKD so we were set for the next destination.

We had Deluxe seating on the ferry for the 40 mile trip to Macau. Imagine our surprise when they presented us with a choice of sandwich and drink or cake and drink as a snack during the 1-hour ride to Macau. Almost like airlines of yesteryear. The ferry ride was smooth, although the day was rainy. The weather was much clearer in Macau than in Hong Kong.

We checked into the Beverly Plaza Hotel and I was royally annoyed when the clerk tried to make us pay an additional 300 HKD for the room we had already paid for. Bill handled the clerk by simply saying over and over again that he would not accept the clerk’s decision. Finally Bill won that argument and we got our room. Bill wanted either a hamburger or a steak for dinner, and none of the restaurants nearby offered either of those. So we walked almost a mile to the nearest McDonald’s for hamburgers. Tomorrow we will find a decent restaurant. We have had enough chicken and rice for awhile. video video

Monday, May 3, 2010

2010-05-03 The Great Wall

By the time this extraordinary landmark first appeared on a European map of the world in 1584, the Great Wall had already stood guard over China's northern frontier for 1800 years. Construction first began after the unification of China in 221 B.C., when a series of walls built by former warring states were linked into a single defensive shield under the direction of the first Emperor of the Jin Dynasty of China.

This first Great Wall was a rammed-earth structure that looked very different from the Wall seen by tourists north of Beijing today. As Chinese dynasties rose and fell, the boundaries of the empire changed and new walls were needed. The magnificent brick Great Wall in Beijing dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The emperors of the Ming Dynasty spent the best part of 300 years fortifying its northern border against Mongol and Manchu raiders.

Manchu troops walked through the Wall unopposed in 1644 after Ming General Wu Sangui opened the gates to the northern invaders. The Manchu's new Qing Dynasty had no use for the Great Wall, which subsequently fell into disrepair. The Wall served no purpose to the Qing Dynasty because they were from the north anyway.

Today there are several gates of the Great Wall in the vicinity of Beijing that are open to tourists. The most popular and most developed is the Badaling Gate. Another is the Simatai Gate, but it is 3-hour drive from Beijing and requires either a group tour or hiring a private car and driver as well as a guide, unless you are an extremely adventurous person and think you can handle multiple local bus changes and haggling for a private car for the final 12 miles (and remember all this must be totally in Chinese). The private car, driver and guide cost more than we were willing to pay. I would like to have had the opportunity to see this place that is supposed to be outstandingly beautiful. But neither my energy level, my tired legs and feet nor my wallet were up for this trip. Bill said he was happy just looking at the photos in the guide books in the hotel.

Huanghua is also a popular gate with people who want to see a section of the Wall in a more crumbled state. Huanghua is 40 miles north of Beijing and even more difficult to reach than Simatai. We passed on that one too. We wanted to visit Mutianyu, which is 42 miles northeast of Beijing and also presents travel challenges. It seemed the most interesting. The Mutianyu section was first built in Northern Qing Dynasty (550 - 557) and is older than the popular Badaling section of the Great Wall. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) construction of the present wall began. The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall connects Juyongguan Pass in the west and Gubeikou Great Wall in the east. In Ming Dynasty, two patriotic generals named Tan Lun and Qi Jiguang rebuilt the Mutianyu section in order to strengthen its defensive potential when they guarded the strategic pass. This section served as the northern protective screen guarding the capital for generations.

A pass was built in the wall in 1404. The Mutianyu Great Wall was rebuilt in 1569 and today most parts of it are well preserved. The Mutianyu Great Wall has the largest construction scale and best quality among all sections of the Great Wall.

We stayed in Michael's House of Beijing, which is a mock Hutong type small hotel. It is about 5-6 blocks from the Jishuitan metro station. The publicly-owned bus No. 919 departs Deshengmen near the Jishuitan metro station and goes directly to the Badaling gate of the Great Wall. This easy transportation makes it relatively easy to visit Badaling…..guide or no guide. After learning Saturday evening that we would need to also hire a private car and driver in addition to our guide, we instructed the hotel to notify the travel agency that we were canceling the Mutianyu trip and instead wanted to go to Badaling with a guide on the public bus. Supposedly, this was all arranged and everyone was clear on the details. Something must have been lost in the translation, because Monday morning the guide William showed up with a private car and driver. So we were once again on for the trip to Mutianyu and it would cost more than we really wanted to pay. But we did get 100 RMB discount on the car and driver.

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall winds 1.4 miles though lofty mountains and high ridges, and many sections are made of granite and its unique structure makes the wall almost indestructible.. This is the only section of the Wall that has double sided parapets to allow fighting on both sides. Some of the parapets are sawtooth shaped instead of the regular rectangular form. Beneath the parapets there are square embrasures, the top of which are designed in an arc structure. These are quite different from the traditional round embrasures seen elsewhere on the Wall. The Mutianyu Wall measures 23 to 26 feet high and 4 to 5 yards wide. The width was decided to be this wide because this dimension would allow 5 horsemen to ride side-by-side on the top of the wall.

There are 22 watch towers set at fairly close intervals along the Wall. These towers are located not only in the main Wall but also in the distinctive 'branch cities' peculiar to this section of the Wall. Branch cities are built on the hill ridge against the inner or outer side of the Wall. The branch cities measure from several yards to dozens of yards across.

To the northwest over 3,281 feet hills (we would call them mountains) lies a section of the wall called Ox Horn Edge. On these steep and lofty peaks there are 2 walls. What is more rarely seen is a general gateway platform guarded by 3 watch towers together on the southeast side. This might be the only place along the Wall where 3 watch towers stand in such close proximity. Mutianyu Great Wall deserves to be the archtype of the ten thousand li Great Wall. (10,000 li is equivalent to 3,100 miles)



It is difficult to say what the total length of the Great Wall really measures. If all the fortified walls built in the different dynasties around northern China are included, the total length would exceed 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles). The Ten Thousand Li seems quite a low estimate of its length compared to modern estimates of 8,850 km (5500 miles). These estimates include trenches and natural barriers like mountain rivers and lakes. Estimates of the length of actual wall come to over 6,200 km (3,900 miles). However, this includes many side branches that don't contribute to the west-to-east 'length'.

All along the Great Wall at the watch towers, guards used a system to relay information of impending attacks to their command posts far away. One shot and 1 smoke meant 100 enemy were approaching. Two shots and 2 smokes meant that 500 enemy were approaching. Three shots and 3 smokes meant that 1,000 or more enemy were approaching. And 4 shots and 4 smokes meant that 10,000 or more enemy were approaching. Bill asked a good question for which neither the guide nor anyone the guide asked could provide an answer. This relay shot and smoke system would be effective to notify the distant command post that enemies were approaching, but how did they communicate to the command post the location along the wall where the enemies were approaching? The answer to that question remains a mystery to us.

Besides its strategically important location and compact layout, the Mutianyu Great Wall is also famous for the breathtakingly beautiful scenery. Heavy forest covers over 96% of the total scenic area. The Wall presents different aspects of beauty in the four seasons. Flowers bloom all over the mountains in spring. Grasses dress the hillside green in summer. Trees are laden with fruits in autumn, and especially in October, leaves are turning red or yellow. In winter, the Wall is covered by snow, making it seem more magnificent. The pine trees around Mutianyu Great Wall are a bit unusual because of their age. There are more than 20 pines over 300 years old and about 200 pines over 100 year old.

On the spring day that we visited Mutianyu the apricot trees were in full bloom and the mountainsides were covered in white blossoms. The sky was very gray and dreary, as is normal for the Beijing area of China during the spring; but the temperatures were cool and comfortable. The previous day was sunny and bright but hot as hades. Would have been better for photos yesterday, but temperature today was better for us to walk around on the stone. The writing in stones on the mountainside in the photo on the right says something to the effect that everyone should always honor Chairman Mao as the savior of China. The flowers look like snow on the mountainside, but those are thousands and thousands of apricot blossoms.

Upon arrival. tourists must run the gamut of pushy vendors to reach the entrance and board the cable car to be whisked in comfort to a platform near the top of the Wall. From there one climbs steep stairs less than 100 feet in elevation to the top of the Wall. That goodness for that cable car! I cannot imagine walking up that steep mountainside. It was hard enough for me to walk the incline from the parking lot to the bottom cable car platform. Once on top of the Wall, one obviously must turn left or right. We chose to go left first. If you are young enough and in good enough physical condition, you can walk all the way to watch tower number 23; but much of that is a very steep incline....and as Bill pointed out, what goes down must come back up and vice versa. There are many more towers, but the Wall has only been renovated to tower number 23; so the Wall is closed to the public past that point.

We only walked to the second tower to the left, then turned around and walked to the first tower to the right. That was enough walking for me and Bill had also seen enough. And even our guide was huffing and puffing worse than me. Some people might get a feeling of personal fulfillment by walking long and arduous distances on the Wall; but, really, what's the point? And the view is spectacular...... but once you have seen it, how long do you need to keep looking at it? Plus, as Bill pointed out, what goes down must walk back up, and vice-versa.

We took the cable car down. Younger and more adventurous tourists can slide down a sled called "Speed" but that did not appeal to us at all.

After touring the Wall, our guide took us to a very nice restaurant some miles away, where we enjoyed a veritable feast. For about $9 each the meal consisted of steamed broccoli, green beans with ginger & garlic & hot dried red peppers, roasted mountain stream trout, chicken & whole brown water chestnuts in a slightly sweet sauce, egg drop soup with leafy vegetables, watermelon slices and a beverage. This was by far the best meal we have eaten in Beijing area. The trout was extra delicious. My favorites were the vegetables as we have not eaten hardly any vegetables since arriving in this city. The only thing I did not care for were the brown water chestnuts, and those were easy to pick out and leave on my garbage plate. The eggs in the egg-drop soup were much thicker and larger than American style egg-drop soup, as if the eggs were not beaten thoroughly before adding to the hot broth. But it tasted the same.

There was plenty of time to also visit the Ming Tombs, but we decided to give that a miss and head back toward the hotel. Today was the final day of a 3-day holiday and we feared the traffic returning to Beijing would be extraordinarily heavy. We lucked out because the police were in the process of shutting down the freeway (probably for some important person to travel unhampered by the common folk and for security reasons). Our car managed to get onto the freeway just as the police closed the entrance behind us. So we had a clear ride back to the city on an almost empty freeway. Tomorrow mid-day we will take overnight train back to Kowloon-Hong Kong. The T97 train departs the Beijing West Railway Station at 13:08 and will arrive at the Hung Hom Station at 14:51 the next day. Then the ferry to Macau at 17:00.

2010-05-02 A day of relaxation

Sunday was set aside for a full day of relaxation……we needed it. Bill had not felt 100% since Friday afternoon and my feet and knees hurt, so we thought it wise to take it easy for the day. Our major activity of the day was walking to a department store 6 blocks away from our hotel. I was curious what a Chinese big city department store would be like.

Turns out that their department stores are very similar to our department stores, even sell a few of the same brands like Adidas, Converse and New Balance. They even had a section devoted to Tupperware, and I have never seen a brand name Tupperware section of any store. But most of the brands of all categories of items were unfamiliar to us. Everything in the department store was expensively priced. A simple man's polo type shirt of unknown manufacturer was roughly $100 USD. Quite obviously, the local population does not shop in department stores as everything was well out of the average citizen's price range. One thing struck me as somewhat odd for communist China…..they had a large section of one floor devoted to Playboy brand clothing. Maybe things have changed in the States since we left 4 years ago, but Playboy brand clothing was not sold in regular department stores back then. Just seems like an odd brand for a communist country to be selling.

The other thing that was unusual was that in the shoe section there were many young women wearing yellow shirts who were yelling at customers. They were all yelling at the same time, and yelling very loudly.. They were attempting to bring customers to see the shoes in different sections of the very large shoe department on the first floor. Maybe this is just a Chinese culture thing, but it was very annoying to me. This yelling did not make me want to shop for shoes. Instead, it made me want to get away from the shoe section of that store.

On our walk to the department store we saw many more motorcycles with gloves permanently affixed to the handles. This is a common practice in both Shanghai and in Beijing. Why bother to put gloves on and off and then have to deal with putting them somewhere or carrying them, when you can just put the gloves onto the handlebars and leave them there. I probably would never have thought to do this, but it makes perfect sense.

Here are a few random thoughts about Beijing or China in general:

 The Forbidden City has 9,999 rooms. Nine is one of the special numbers important to Chinese and was the number reserved strictly for the emperor. Having 9,999 rooms meant the emperor should have the best luck or best fortune.

 The young women and teenage girls in both Beijing and Shanghai wear the funkiest clothes. One very popular mode of dress is to wear leggings or black pantyhose beneath shorts, usually accompanied by high heels. Paired with all kinds of combinations of tops, vests, jackets or multiple tops or multiple shirts. They do know how to put together an unusual style.

The first electric light bulb in China was placed in the Empress Dowager's living chambers in the Summer Palace. The light bulb was purchased from a German business. That light bulb is still in the Empress Dowager's chambers in the Summer Palace and is in a lantern fixture with flowers painted on the glass. I assume both the light bulb and the fixture were purchased from the Germans, but neither the guides nor the guide books mention the fixture itself. The light fixture in hanging from the ceiling just inside the doorway on the left side in this photo.

 Electric bicycles and electric motorbikes are everywhere in Beijing. We also saw a lot of these in Shanghai, but many more are in Beijing. The bicycle rickshaws we rode between the subway station and the Summer Palace yesterday were both electric bicycles. The rickshaw we rode in the Hutong was a regular old-fashioned pedal bicycle. There are only 48 automobiles per 1,000 population in Beijing. You see many, many more old-fashioned and electric bicycles in Beijing. And, quite frankly, this city of 30 million does not need more private cars on the streets. The traffic is heavy enough already. The public transport system is excellent in both Shanghai and Beijing.

You see these electric bicycles everywhere parked on the sidewalks, often with the battery plugged into an electrical outlet in a nearby shop for recharging. Electricity must be inexpensive in China; maybe they use nuclear power plants. Here in Beijing we have seen many bicycles wrapped with tape. We call these tapecicyles. Click on the photo for larger view for full effect.



Visitors must remember which country they are in when crossing a street!!! Pedestrians have no rights whatsoever in China. Forget those 'Walk' and 'Don't Walk' signs and the marked pedestrian crossings --- they don't mean a thing in China. In Vietnam one walks across the street without regard to the traffic; just maintain a constant pace and the traffic works its way around pedestrians. We never saw a pedestrian/vehicle accident anywhere in Vietnam. In Cambodia, the traffic also works around pedestrians but does follow traffic lights. In Malaysia, the traffic respects pedestrians and follows traffic lights. Singapore is the most organized country on earth; if pedestrians follow the traffic lights there should be no accidents. Not true in China. As the guy we met in Shanghai pointed out, there are so many people in China that people are considered to be the least important thing on the street. A vehicle of any kind has the right-of-way at all times on all streets and pedestrians better watch out!!!

Window washers in Beijing are a different breed altogether. They think they are Spidermen. We saw a couple of window washers rappelling down the side of a high-rise building while swinging side to side as they cleaned the windows. No platforms to stand on for these guys. They were swinging free as they washed their way down the side of the very tall glass-walled exterior of the high-rise building. Gutsy guys.

There are 2 well-known foods from Beijing. One is Peking Duck, or Beijing Duck as they now call it. I have never tasted duck and won't be trying any here in Beijing either. The other well-known food is called Beijing Hot Pot. Hot Pot is served on many plates and reminds me a lot of the real traditional Pho served in Hanoi. There is a pot of boiling water on or in the center of the table. Meat, usually lamb but can also be beef, is sliced very thin and about 4-inches wide and then rolled. A large stack of these meat rolls are put on a plate and served raw. Plates of leafy green vegetables, usually 3 or 4 different kinds, are served. Also presented are plates of rice vermicelli and a plate of long sheets of very wide noodles. There might also be whole eggs in the shells and maybe squares of tofu. Using chopsticks, place into the boiling water whatever combination of the ingredients you might like. When each ingredient is cooked to the degree you wish, place several into your small eating bowl. Swirl and eat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Try eating a leafy vegetable the size of a romaine lettuce leaf with chopsticks while it is dripping liquid.

Bill really likes the local beer in both Shanghai and Beijing that is called Yanjing Beer. Our guide had told us that this is just the common beer and that there are 2 other beers that are much better. We never saw the other 2 brands he mentioned, or maybe we just did not understand what he was saying. The label on the everyday common Yanjing beer states that it is 'Super Refreshing' ..........but Bill calls it the champagne of beers. This could easily be his favorite beer encountered thus far in our world travels. If you see Yanjing brand in your local shop, try it.

Oh, and you can recognize Coca-Cola products anywhere, regardless of the language printed on the label or can. I enjoyed what I am sure was a Coke Zero when we visited the Summer Palace.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Summer Palace

They cook something in Beijing that stinks to high heaven. We cannot identify the smell, but have noticed it every time we have walked through a residential area or street food vendor area. It reeks so much it makes my stomach do flip flops. Probably don't want to know what they are eating that is causing this noxious odor.

Today we decided to set off on our own to explore the Summer Palace. According to information I found online, we should be able to take the subway from the nearby Jishuitan station on Line 2 westward to the Xizhimen station and switch to Line 4 heading northwest; exiting at the Xiyuan station at exit C2 and walk westward. We waited until morning rush hour should be over and ventured out. The Beijing subway is different from other subways we have used elsewhere. Normally one buys tickets between specific stations; the cost of the ticket depends on how far one is traveling. Not true in Beijing. Here one buys a ticket and that ticket is good for wherever one goes on the subway system. The ticket is scanned upon entry; you can change lines as many times as you want; and the ticket is taken by the machine as you exit, wherever you decide to exit. Cost is the same whether you are going only one stop or 30 stops. The ticket costs one set price regardless of where you are going. Makes it a lot easier for tourists to purchase tickets from the station clerks who speak only Chinese. Just hold up your fingers for 1 or 2 tickets and hand over the money. Doesn't matter where you are going. We followed this routine and made it to our destination without incident. At the entrance of the Summer Palace a twenty-ish local girl presented herself as a licensed English-speaking guide and offered her services for 150 RMB. We settled on 140 RMB. We wouldn't have understood anything we were looking at if we had not enjoyed the benefit of her explanations. She is a student at the University of Beijing and hopes to graduate with a degree in English in June.

By the way, the people of Beijing speak only Chinese. In Shanghai probably one-third of the people spoke at least some English. In Beijing no one speaks any English except hotel desk clerks and licensed English-speaking guides. Even in restaurants frequented by tourists the employees do not speak any English. Nor are there any menus or display boards in restaurants written in English style letters, only in Chinese stick characters. So we can only frequent places with pictures of food to point to or a vendor where we can point to the actual item we want. To go anywhere by taxi in either Shanghai or Beijing, you must have directions written in Chinese stick characters. Never leave your hotel without return directions written in Chinese.

The weather here has improved dramatically since our arrival. It was sunny and bright the morning we arrived, but cold as heck and very windy. Yesterday it was sunny and bright with high temperature of about 87F. Today is predicted to be the same. This is great.

The Summer Palace is about 10 miles from The Forbidden City. It was built during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and additions were made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The emperor and royal family resided at the Summer Palace from April to October each year to escape the heat of central Beijing. The Summer Palace is dedicated to Longevity and Benevolence. And all the houses and halls are called various names dealing with those either longevity or benevolence. Kunming Lake is located next to the Summer Palace. It was originally just a pond, but the Empress Dowager ordered that the pond be deepened and enlarged. The emperor watched navy exercises in the lake. Today there are peddle-boats and tourist boats plying the lake waters.

Originally the land around the palace and gardens was relatively flat. When Kunming Lake was enlarged, the dirt removed from the lake area was used to construct hills at the palace. There are several royal structures built on those hills. One of the major structures is a hall that houses a hundred hand Buddha. This is where the Empress Dowager worshiped. We did not walk up the hill to see the Buddha, so have no idea what a hundred hand Buddha looks like. Supposedly there is the one located here and another one in India.

Like most of the gardens of Beijing, the royal garden and summer home did not elude the rampages of the Anglo-French allied forces and were destroyed by fire during their attacks. In 1888 Empress Dowager Cixi took funds from the navy and ordered the palace to be reconstructed, changing the name to Summer Palace (Yiheyuan). The Empress Dowager spent most of her later years there, dealing with state affairs and entertaining. In 1900 the palace again was ransacked by the Eight-Power Allied Forces. After the successful 1911 peoples revolution, the Summer Palace was opened to the public.

Side note: Bill and I enjoy history, but neither of us knew anything about any Eight-Power Allied Forces (including the USA) attacking China around 1900. The guide had no idea why we attacked China at that time. Later back at our hotel, an internet search provided an answer that both Bill and I were familiar with --- The Boxer Rebellion. The US version of the Boxer Rebellion is that the Chinese impounded all foreign legations and dignitaries and embassy employees in Beijing and Allied Forces entered Beijing and freed our people. The Chinese version of this incident is another instance of history being written by the ultimate victors. In China today, students are taught the following: "September 7, 2001 marks a special day for China and even some developed countries. On this day one century ago, namely, September 7, 1901, the Eight Power Allied Forces formed by Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Austria and Italy forced the Chinese Qing Government to sign the most insolent and unequal Protocol in human civilization. That year was the Year of Xinchou in Chinese lunar calendar, so the Protocol, officially the Protocol of 1901, is historically known as the Protocol of Xinchou." The Chinese are taught about atrocities committed by the Allied Forces during this invasion of their homeland. You can read their version of this part of history at http://www.china.org.cn/e-8guo/index.htm Sorry, you will need to copy and paste that into a browser; I cannot make that into a link because this is being posted via email text only. End of side note.

The Summer Palace consists of over 3,000 structures including pavilions, towers, bridges and corridors. It holds the world's longest corridor, which is 728 meters long (2366 feet).

The emperor liked to walk the corridor as he felt it was good for his health. It was very crowded the day we visited, but we did manage to walk the entire length to the marble boat area. We opted to walk outside on our return to the entrance because the grounds were less crowded outside the corridor.



Each of the more than 250 beams in the corridor is painted with a different garden scene. Actually, each SIDE of each beam is painted with a different garden scene. Bill did a quick math calculation and announced that there must be 684 painted garden scenes inside this corridor. And each one is different!

At all national parks in China the very old trees are marked with small plaques. A red plaque means the tree is more than 500 years old. A green plaque means the tree is more than 300 years old. There is a pine tree (of all things!!) in the Summer Palace that is more than 500 years old. The top was chopped off and it was trained to resemble the tail of a pheasant. This is an extremely unusual tree because pines just don't live that long. It is not an attractive tree, but it is unique.

There were hundreds of magnolia trees in bloom on the day we visited, covered in small pink blossoms. In Houston, these are often called tulip trees. Should be called Chinese magnolias, which could never be confused with our southern magnolias with their huge white blossoms.

Empress Dowager Cixi was known as the Dragon Lady. Her son became emperor at the age of 3. She would sit behind a screen behind the throne and tell the emperor what to do. So, in effect, she acted as emperor for 48 years. Her natural son died at the age of 19 and her adopted son was placed on the throne as emperor. She followed the same screen routine with that son.

Outside the front of one of the main buildings are bronze statues --- one of a mythical dragon creature and one of a stork. The dragon represents the emperor (man) and the stork represents the empress (woman). Normally the statues would be placed with the dragon closest to the entry door since the emperor was the most important person. However, at the Summer Palace the statue positions are switched by order of the Empress Dowager. A subtle reminder that she was in charge of the country, not her son.

The empress enjoyed opium. Her son did not want opium in China; that was the whole point of the opium wars. Near the end of the second opium war she ordered that the emperor be placed under house arrest at the Summer Palace. She ordered that the doorway that would be used by the emperor be sealed so that the emperor could not escape. He remained under house arrest for 10 years. This was some mean lady to do this to her own son.

Also at the Summer Palace is a large marble boat. Probably the only such boat in the world. The marble boat is tied to a dock and has never moved, but it is floating. The Empress Dowager liked to sit on the upper level of this boat in front of a large mirror. She enjoyed admiring her reflection while sitting in the cool marble on the lake during the heat of summer. Look closely and you will see that mirror still in place. The side of the boat facing away from the shore was damaged during the battle when the Eight-Power Allied Forces "attacked" Beijing, and that side has been repaired with wood. But the entire boat originally was constructed of white marble.

Another place of interest was the replica of the Marco Polo Bridge which connects to the smaller South Island in Kunming Lake. The original Marco Polo Bridge was across a small branch of a river on the south side of Beijing. This bridge was constructed to honor Marco Polo shortly after his visit to China 700 years ago. The replica Marco Polo Bridge is actually larger than the original. The replica has 17 arches, with the center arch being slightly larger than the others. This is because 9 is the mystical supreme number reserved for the emperor. Anyone even saying the number 9 was instantly put to death; this number was reserved strictly for the emperor. If you count the arches from either the left or the right, you arrive at the number 9 as the center arch.

When we arrived at the entrance to the Summer Palace it was extremely crowded. May 1st is an important national holiday (celebrating the birth of communism). It is also called Labor Day and everyone is off work for 3 days. I swear half of Beijing was at the Summer Palace today, and the other half was down riding the subways. The subways were even more packed today than yesterday morning during rush hour.
On the return trip we thought about stopping at the Beijing Zoo and seeing the famous pandas. But the subway train did not stop at that station. So we got off at the National Library station and caught a train back towards the zoo. That train did not stop either. Our only explanation for this is that the zoo was either closed on this important national holiday. Or the zoo was filled to capacity and they weren't letting any more people in the gates so they weren't letting the subway stop there any more today. At any rate, we missed seeing the pandas.

Tomorrow morning we were supposed to have an English-speaking guide take us to see the Great Wall. But the hotel desk clerk said tonight that it would be extremely crowded tomorrow, so I asked that the guide be rescheduled for Monday morning. We plan for a relaxing day tomorrow. My feet and legs ache from walking up and down stone steps all day long for the past 2 days. Really wish I had brought gel inserts for my normally comfortable shoes. Marble stairs are hard on the legs and feet.