National Day

This post is being written in Houston well after the events described below.

I apologize in advance for all the pictures in this post. Most are taken of the television screen in our room with the others taken out our hotel window.

As you’ll recall, when we initially booked the Viking cruise in China, it was done due to a promo they were offering (upgraded stateroom and “free” air). We paid not a whit of attention to the dates so didn’t realize that we would be in China for their National Day (which is really a week). This is their counterpart to the 4th of July in the USA but like everything chinese is at a massive scale. This was especially true this year as it was the 70th anniversary of the founding of communist China which was celebrated more grandly than other years as the USSR only lasted 69 years.

If you watched the news you probably saw some of the festivities but I doubt you got a full picture. The military parade started at 10 am and lasted about an hour, followed by the people’s parade for about an hour and a half. The evening gala/pageant was about two hours long and was basically a blown up version of an Olympic opening ceremony. Everything took place at Tinammen Square and most of downtown streets in Beijing were closed to traffic. Only invited guests were allowed near the square and most businesses were closed so we decided we would pretend it was a sea day and just enjoy our nice hotel and room.

We slept in and headed to the huge buffet breakfast which was included with our room just before it closed. Like all Asian hotels with buffets like this, they have foods for American breakfasts as well as Asian ones-so eggs, bacon, hash browns, pastries as well as Chinese soups, stir frys, steamed buns and dumplings-think of a holiday buffet brunch at a big city hotel and you’ll have the general idea. The room was full of Chinese folks who had come into ten city for the celebration and all the TVs were tunes to the festivities. Actually, all the stations were covering it so it wasn’t possible to watch anything else. Before the actual parade started, Chairman Xi Jinping rode in his limo (which has its own microphones) and reviewed the troops.

There were reportedly 15,000 troops in the parade and gosh knows there was plenty of military hardware on display There were several flyovers involving helicopters, fighter jets and other military planes. We got to see these fly by our hotel window and then a minute or two later show up on tv!

After all the military might had finished being shown, the People’s Parade started with the unfurling if the HUGE flag by 2,500 (at least if my counting of heads and multiplication is correct) Chinese shown at the top of this post. Those are people in white outfits marching along (in unison of course) carrying the flag. It was originally rolled up and carried by the last row. When the parade started, it was unfurled and ended up in the center of that huge block of people. I can’t imagine being one of the poor 600-750 folks who spent the entire parade holding it up over their heads! The flag was followed by 15-30 other motorized”floats” each of which was surrounded by a mass of people. According to the news reports, there were over 100,000 marchers! The parade ended with the release of 70,000 doves followed by 70,000 (biodegradable) balloons. All in all it was a pretty impressive show!

After the parade was over, the television channels spent the rest of the day reviewing it and interviewing those who were in the square. We decided to enjoy the hotel’s indoor pool and perhaps a nap might have been taken😂

That evening we watched the four act gala on television. It included a 1000 piece orchestra, a large group in mirrored suits holding LED screens with changing animations-flag, amoeba like shapes, etc), dancing and dribbling basketball players, singing and saluting children and lots of fireworks-including those that opened the pageant by making a huge 70 in the sky. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the fireworks directly from our room but we could see their reflection in a nearby building. The party leaders all watched this from the balconies of the Forbidden City’s Gate. They had attended a big dinner inside the palace and had dessert and tea served to them during the show. Given how bored they all looked, I think we had a better seat for the show!

All in all the daylong celebrations had been most impressive to see-I suspect the logistics would have been ever more impressive to learn about. Where did they find another space big enough to allow for rehearsal (and trust me they had been well rehearsed!), where did they house 100,000 people and 15,000 soldiers-perhaps that is why our hotel was changed at the last minute? How did they feed them all? After seeing the havoc a simple parade in a city like Houston causes, it’s amazing to thing of putting on this event which was hundreds of times larger and in a city that is 5 times bigger!

Tomorrow, we do a walking cultural tour and then transfer to the hotel to connect with our Viking Ocean Cruises’ precruise extension. V

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Today’s the Day!

This post is being written over a month after the events described.

Long before we planned on going to Asia, we said we would like to go someday in order to see the Great Wall. Finally, today is that day!

When we decide to book the Viking cruise, we knew that their included tour for the first full day aboard was to the Great Wall. BUT, that was going to mean about a 3 hour bus ride in each direction and Viking would be visiting during the National Holiday week, we quickly began to explore other options.

We didn’t know that there were so many sections of the wall that were open to tourists, not that most had been heavily restored while a couple of sections are “wild” and unrestored. After much research (Link to descriptions of the Great Wall) we decided to do the Jinshanling section which had both restored and unrestored sections. We were concerned however as it would involve some hiking but our contact at the agency said they had other clients who had done it. We also hoped that since this section wasn’t as popular that we wouldn’t run into huge crowds as we had seen in our research:

We left the hotel at 7:30 and after an hour and a half or so drive we got our first glimpse of the Wall from the highway. Shortly thereafter we arrived at the entrance where the driver dropped us off (he headed to the east gate where he would pick us up several hours later).

From here Coco and we rode a big golf cart to the entrance building where Coco bought our tickets. You can see in the map what we hoped to hike.

The hike uphill to get to the wall was pretty steep and while there was a cable car, that seemed like cheating so we walked up the asphalt and gravel path and stairs until we reached the gate where we climbed up, into and on the wall.

The wall is just incredible. To see it disappearing into the distance in both directions and to think of what it took to build this 13,000 mile long building over 2,300 years ago is just amazing.

While our intention had been to walk both this restored section and make our way to the unrestored portion, the wall conquered us. The steps up and then down and then up and up and then down and down killed us. Thank goodness we had splurged at Target for the set of 19.99 hiking poles or otherwise I don’t think either of us would have made it. Some of the steps were almost as high as my knee-Crazy steep! Anyway, after about two hours of being on the wall we asked Coco (that’s her hands on her hips in the picture with Mike) how much further to we got to the Wild section. When she said we had five more towers (it’s the last tower you can see on the far right of the top picture in those just above and at this we had only been through two plus our entry point) we both decided that it was not going to be possible. 😢 While it was disappointing to not do what we had hoped, we were thrilled to have been able to do it at all. If you have any notion you want to walk on the Great Wall be sure and do it when you are able. We are so glad we did, and as you can see we didn’t have crowds to deal with. We saw the same 15-20 people all day including the family below who asked us to take their picture. It was so much more enjoyable than what our fellow cruisers described they did later in the week. Not only did they have the 3 hour bus ride there (and due to traffic a 4 hour one back), they only had a short visit to the wall and had to fight their way through big crowds. We truly enjoyed the experience and with the exception of the disappointment of having to leave the wall after only doing about a third of what we had hoped (compare the marked up map below to the one at the top of the post) it was a wonderful time and one we wouldn’t trade for anything.

After walking to the next exit point and climbing back down the hill followed by one of the several souvenir vendors (who we had seen at the entrance, at the towers and now on the way down – why won’t they take no for an answer), Coco finally had cell service and she was able to tell the driver to come back from the other end of this section for us.

We then went to a local restaurant and were the last lunch customers as as soon as they served us, all of them sat down and had lunch too.

Coco ordered for all three of us and just like Rocky before her we had too much food. But after our exercise, we ended up finishing almost all! We had a delicious slightly spicy beef stir fry, fried rice, an omelet with green onions, a tofu (it was thinly sliced and very dry-almost like a noodle) and snow pea dish, wok fryed greens (sorta a cross between spinach and kale) and sweet and sour pork. We questioned Coco about the last dish as we both thought this was a Chinese American dish but she swears it is authentic. It was very tasty and while sweet, not as much as here in the states. We were intrigued by the set up at each place (we had seen the same thing in Xi’an). Apparently the smaller restaurants use a service to wash, sterilize and package the dishes rather than having staff to do it.

After lunch, we made the drive back into the city. After our big lunch, we weren’t hungry for dinner but we did need some cash so after a little bit of a rest we explored the blocks around our place. Like everywhere else, there were lots of National Holiday decorations up. I was surprised that poinsettias seemed to be the flower of choice – not sure how they kept them from wilting. We ended up buying a few sodas and some interesting Chinese snacks which we enjoyed while watching some tv later that evening. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the purple yam ice cream cone at McDonald’s 😢.

Needless to say, we weren’t up late and slept good after the great day on the Great Wall.

Xi’an Day 2

This post is being written in cloudy Santa Fe, New Mexico on November 7 (more than a month after the fun below actually happened).

When we were emailing back and forth with Lily our contact at China Highlights about how to spend our time in Xi’an, she suggested we might enjoy a bike ride on the city’s wall. Hmmm, wonder if the bikes will be big enough? Will we end up falling and breaking an arm (or at this age now maybe we need to start worrying about a hip?!). Lily suggested we plan it and if upon arrival we just wanted to walk them that would be ok too.

Rocky picked us up bright and early at our hotel and we drove to the north gate (there is one in each compass direction). Xi’an is one of the few larger Chinese cities whose walls thankfully haven’t been demolished to make way for new buildings or roads. While Rocky bought our tickets to mount the wall, we looked around the base of the gate. This was our first (but not last) time seeing how hard the Chinese work to keep places clean. They use the old fashioned brooms everywhere. With tickets in hand we went through the tunnel and into the courtyard and up the stairs to mount the wall.

The wall is well preserved and one could circumnavigate the entire older part of the city on it, a distance of about 9 miles. It was originally built in the 1300s. It is about 40 feet tall and just as thick at its top and even thicker at the base. In addition to the four towers at the gates, there are towers every 400 feet or so along its length. The walls were relatively empty when we arrived shortly before 9 am but by the time we left an hour and a half later they were becoming more crowded with folks taking morning walks, sightseeing, a company morale boosting run celebrating National Day. the towers were decorated for the Holiday as were the battlements at the corners.

We ended up deciding that the bike ride would be a great way to see more of the wall and are so glad we did. Not only did it give us a great overview of the 1/4 of the wall we rode, it got us some exercise in before our afternoon train ride to Bejing. Turns out the bikes have easily adjustable seats so they were able to fit even me! The bike ride turned out to be a real highlight of our time in Xi’an.

After returning our bikes, we went to a city market where Rocky (we apparatuses don’t have any pictures of him 😢) pointed us in the direction of ten souvenir sellers and advised us on how to bargain. He said however that he wouldn’t join us for this portion as the vendors blamed him if we ended up not buying something. We think we did ok buying chopstick sets for “bread & butter” gifts for our friend Andy in Seattle and Jeff & Ken who we stayed with last week in Tucson. The market reminded me of a single alley in Istanbul’s huge bazaar. The vendors all try to get you to buy their stuff as it’s better than everyone else’s even though it’s pretty obvious it’s all coming from the same manufacturers. When we did t have enough small bills to pay for what we bought, our lady pretended to not have any change and wanted to give us the change in merchandise until we started to walk away….then suddenly her vendor neighbor “loaned” her enough to make change. 😂

Rocky met us at the end of the market and we then headed to the food portion. He explained to us what each of the foods was and we had some delicious fresh squeezed (crushed?) pomegranate juice.

Even though it was a little early, we had lunch in one of the local’s restaurants in the market. Rocky ordered on our behalf and we had “soup” dumplings. We had heard about these before our trip and were excited to have them in person. The “soup” is broth made from bones and then chilled into a gelatin which is chopped up and mixed with the dumpling’s stuffing. When the dumpling is cooked, the broth liquifies. Theybare eaten by tearing a small hole in the dumpling, draining the soup into a spoon and drinking it. Then you eat the dumpling after dipping it in the ponzu sauce served in a small bowl along with the basket of dumplings. Delicious!

Rocky also wanted us to try “Chinese” hamburgers. These were steamed buns with a chinese meat filling that reminded me of pastrami. Not a hamburger but certainly tasty. We finished with the local fried dessert made of yams and filled with nuts.

After lunch we were driven to the HUGE railroad station newly built just to handle bullet trains. Rocky left us after making sure we (and some other gringo tourist) made it correctly though the first security check. We had to go through another to get to the area of the stations for trains headed to Beijing (perhaps extra security for the holiday?) where we faced hundreds of people waiting for the gates to open to let us go downstairs to the platform. After a short wait, the crowd finally started moving and we made our way to the train where the platform seemed relatively empty compared to the chaos upstairs!

The train trip was uneventful. Speed was slightly greater than on the Japanese trains and we got some snacks though most weren’t very tasty and were left behind! Legroom may have been a little less than in Japan but the lack of a footrest meant it was just as comfortable. Even though they didn’t bow, the attendants were just as pleasant and even better dressed. Unfortunately, unlike the Japanese, the Chinese don’t think it impolite to chat on their phones or sing/hum along to whatever song they are listening to over their earphones! 😱

We arrived in Beijing just before sunset and after wandering around the station for waaay too long (apparently there was more than one Exit 3) we finally found our guide, “Coco” and after basically retracing our steps, we got to the van and were driven through the heavily decorated streets to our hotel for the next three nights.

Just before we left for Japan, Lily our contact at the Chinese travel agency emailed me to inform me that due to the holiday, our hotel near Tinammen Square was no longer available and she suggested another hotel. After checking TripAdvisor and finding poor reviews, we looked to see if we could find another hotel. We found a great rate for the Crown Plaza and asked her about booking it. She did but I order to get a king room we paid an additional $20 a night. Upon arrival, apparently they had given away “our” room so we were upgraded to a huge fancy corner room with an entry hall, separate toilet room, and big shower/tub room. So glad we “splurged” for the extra. I think even with the extra the room was under $80 a night!

After checking in, we had a snack from the mall next door and quickly went to bed. Tomorrow we attempt to conquer The Great Wall!

Xi’an

This post is being written in Sedona AZ on Halloween more than a month since we were actually in Xi’an. Wow, how time flies!

Rocky picked us up at 8 am (so we didn’t get much time to sleep in that extra long bed!) and our first stop was the Big Goose Pagoda. This would be the first of many Buddhist Temples we would visit in China. All temples have a “Happy” Buddha near the front-he is the smiling big bellied one. And always the guide would point out that Mike or I or we both were like happy Buddhas!

At one point, Rocky and I were walking along and suddenly realized Mike wasn’t with us. We turned around and found him surrounded by middle school kids. Turns out an English teacher brings his students to the temple and asks tourists to speak English with the students. It was such a hoot to see shy Mike center stage trying to come up with simple questions for each kid. Even funnier was watching the kids helping each other try to answer. This was the first of many interactions we had with Chinese folks wanting to practice their language skills. We were often stopped and greeted with “Hair-row, how are yu?” When we responded we were off to the races with a fun conversation!

We left the pagoda and drove an hour or so out of the central part of town to see what had brought us to Xi’an, the Terra Cotta Army. These clay statutes had been made and built as part of the tomb complex of China’s first emperor. They lay buried for over 1600 years until they were accidentally discovered by farmers digging a well. There are three pits which are now contained within three separate buildings where the army is found.

There are estimated to be over 8000 soldiers plus chariots and horses. All but a few were in pieces due to the collapse of the wood roof that protected them (initially) from the dirt under which they were buried. When the wood rotted, the dirt damaged them. There is a large group of anthropologists who have worked continuously since they were found piloting them back together. They number each piece and where it was found and use plastic bins to keep pieces together. Each warrior is unique so it’s a huge jigsaw puzzle. It’s estimated at their current rate they will finish putting back together those currently unearthed in another 100 years. Of course there are many that have yet to be uncovered.

In a separate building there is a museum display of the few figures that were intact. You’ll note that they (and the rest of the warriors) are missing their weapons. This is because the 2nd Emperor opened the tomb and had his soldiers steal them! This is also when some of the figures were damaged.

In the second picture above you can see that the figures were originally colored. The back if that warrior has the original color. Apparently, unless these colors are protected immediately after being exposed to air, the color fades.

It is impossible to adequately describe the magnitude of this place and its impact when you walk around. To think about the amount of work it took to create this army is mind blowing. Hopefully these pictures give you a little idea.

After having our picture taken with the army, it was time for a late lunch. Ricky took us to a local place and helped us order. OMG, it was so good-I had been told that we wouldn’t like real Chinese food. That Chinese American food was very different and that real Chinese wouldn’t be tasty. Not so! It was similar but so much fresher, better!

Rocky wanted us to order more than we did, thank goodness we didn’t! We had leftovers which he took home. We had pork buns, dumplings and sizzling beef stir fry and then a fried dough with a molasses sauce for dessert. The stir fry was served on a thin aluminum pan sitting on a very hot plate.

After our late lunch, we drove back to the city and were dropped off at our hotel where a nap may have been taken. After our naps we went and explored the neighborhood around the hotel. It was busy with shopping, food and folks just out enjoying the evening including the two twenty somethings in their crazy Little Bo Peep outfits. We were a few blocks from the center of Xi’an which is marked by the Bell Tower. This tower is lit every night but was surrounded by special decorations in anticipation of the National Holiday a couple of days away. Each town has a bell tower and a drum tower. The bell was run in the morning to get work started and the drum in the evening at the end of the day. That is Xi’an’s drum tower in the distance behind the Bell Tower.

While we weren’t hungry after our huge lunch it was fun to check out some of the street food. We did eventually go back to the room and munch on some chips we had left from an earlier visit to a store and a pomegranate. Pomegranates are grown in this part of china and we had seen them along the road. They put plastic bags over the immature fruit to keep bugs out while still on the tree. Then the bag also makes for an easy way to tote it home! It was tasty though a bit messy to deal with in the hotel room.

Tomorrow we are going to see Xi’ans City Walls and then head towards Beijing!

To China

This post is being written from Las Vegas about our trip from Japan to China on September 27th. Sorry I have fallen so far behind.

The picture above is Mike in Kyoto as we boarded our bullet train to the Osaka airport for our flight to Xi’an China. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After our long day to, from and in Hiroshima and knowing we would be going non-stop for the next 7 days we decided to take it easy on our last day in Kyoto. We had thought about seeing another sight or two but the remaining ones required a trip away from the city so we decided…”next time”.

After sleeping in, we had a tasty last lunch in our hotel’s buffet restaurant. We hadn’t planned on eating there but after peaking in and seeing it was all locals, we decided to try it. Very tasty salad makings and Japanese versions of European dishes but also some delicious tempura and other Japanese noodle dishes. It was interesting watching the locals use chop sticks and raise their plates to eat non Asian dishes.

We had originally intended to use the same luggage service to take our bags to the airport and for us to take the subway to train station. But we found out we had to send the luggage two days ahead and that the cost of a cab was cheap much less than the luggage service, we decided we would handle the bags ourselves. The hotel called us a cab and I’m glad we had that experience.

Like so much in Japan, it is still old school. The driver wears gloves (some wear suits and hats), the cab is immaculate and the seats are even covered with antimacassars!

We arrived at the station and quickly boarded the Hello Kitty Express to the airport. Everything on the train was themed even the bathroom mirror and the antimacassars!

We arrived at the HUGE (well we thought it was huge until we saw China’s airports) too early to check in so had to cool our heels for a bit in the checkin area which wasn’t much fun as apparently half of everyone leaving Osaka was doing the same thing.

But after we checked our bags, and after spending a bit of time in the lounge we found ourselves aboard our plane for our 4.5 hour flight to Xi’an. When we booked the flight on Hainan, we discovered for less than $100 more over what an economy ticket plus the exit row seat fee cost we could be in Business (which came with extra bag weight which we needed 😢) it was a no brainer to ride up front. The service and food but most importantly legroom were all great.

We arrived in Xi’an at 11:35 pm. We had used a Chinese tour agency, China Highlights to book our hotels, tours and transfers in China. We don’t normally use an agency but as Asia was completely new to us and frankly we were a bit afraid to plan our travels without help. Thank goodness we did, as it turned out to be the National Holiday in China. If not for the advice of the agent we worked with, we would likely have been trying to see the sights along with thousands and thousands of Chinese. She advised us to arrive earlier than originally planned which we did. All of that is to say that we were pleased to see the smiling face of our guide “Rocky” waiting at the door when we exited customs. He and our driver drove us through dark but heavily decorated streets to our hotel in the center of the city where we arrived about 1 am.

Our room was large but Asian standards but when we walked in I was sad to see what I thought was a very ornate footboard. I had told Lily (our travel agent) that I was very tall and that I’d appreciate it if we could be assigned a room without a footboard. Oh well, it was only two nights. But wait, that is a strange looking footboard. What is it?

Yes, apparently the hotel had taken Lily’s request to heart and using some ballroom chairs, and extra pillows and a folded comforter, they had extended the bed! Wow, this was a new one! Mike said, “can you imagine the conversation the housekeepers must of had while setting this up!”

So after a long day, we fell asleep in a very long bed in a brand new country!

Tomorrow, we are off to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Seattle

We arrived about an hour and half early and lucked out with our seats. The economy cabin was about half empty so Mike moved to an empty seat in the middle section of the same row where we had our assigned exit row seats so he had no one beside him and I had two seats to myself! We feel like we won the lottery!

Stayed awake the whole 10 hours so we are ready for bed! 🛌