Oops-a little more Xiamen

This post is being written in February 2020 well after the events described below.

Sorry for not including this information with my post about Xiamen yesterday. I have sorted my pictures by locale and accidentally put these of our sailaway and final afternoon tea in the Hong Kong album.

As I noted, we only spent a day and a half in Xiamen, we sailed away around lunchtime. The sail down the river to the sea was interesting in that we got to see quite a few modern buildings across the inlet.

Since we slept in and had a leisurely breakfast we skipped lunch and enjoyed our final tea. As I believe I related previously, I had been disappointed at having whipped rather than “proper” clotted cream for my scone and had mentioned it in an Instagram post. Apparently, Ricky, the waiter in charge of tea saw that post and stopped me one day to let me know he had a stash of clotted cream and to come to tea again.

When our scones were first delivered we got the dreaded whipped cream but soon Ricky brought us the real stuff! 😊 Just another example of the incredible service aboard Viking Ocean.

You will note that we didn’t have sandwiches and pastries, only scones. That’s because dinner that night was Mike’s favorite lobster. So we ate small at tea and went to dinner relatively late. As usual, the lobster was delish.

Next up, overnight in Hong Kong.

Xiamen Overnight

This post is being written months after the visit described below.

While our iteniary showed a two day stop in Xiamen it actually was only a day and a half. Which turned out to be just fine as this city of 5 million had the typical shrines and temples but frankly just as tends to happen in Europe with cathedrals, we were about templed out! As our friend Peggy says, it’s an ABC tour-another bloody church. In this case, an ABT tour! 😂

The included tour here was another panoramic tour with stops at a beautiful park with a lake and the aforementioned Buddhist temple.

The park is focused on the lake which includes their version of the the little mermaid.

The park itself was lovely and I’m sure even more so when all the flowers were in bloom.

At the entrance to the park was a sculpture of a Dragon Boat. The lake is used for races and practice. The carving style reminded me of the modern facade of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. When we lived in Houston, one of my coworkers was on a dragon boat team, it was great fun to watch their races. I wish one had been taking place while we were in Xiamen.

From the park we headed to the temple. Our guide was new (it was her first day) so while knowledgeable she was very timid. When one couple didn’t return at the appointed time, she spent at least 30 minutes trying to locate them even though she had no idea who she was looking for. Turns out they had decided to leave the temple early on another. Tour bus without telling anyone. When they reboarded our bus at our last stop they got some nasty looks from those who stood and waited while our guide looked for them. Oh well, it was the only instance of that sort of rude behavior so I guess we should count ourselves lucky.

The temple compels was beautiful but crowded-this was the last day of the holiday as I recall.

I was particularly impressed with the ancient carved and painted details of the buildings. Especially in contrast to the very modern buildings of the city in the distance – see the title shot of this post.

From the temple we were driven to Xiamen’s pedestrian only shopping street where we had free time. We walked down it but enjoyed our time on the back streets more.

On the small backstreets we saw the local food shops where the dishes were washed in tubs on the street and we watched a woman making dumplings? Spaetzle?

From there we returned to the ship and had a relaxing afternoon, evening and morning before departing for our last port of Hong Kong. As I recall, rather than go ashore the last morning, we did laundry and packed up all but our Hong Kong clothes.

Okinawa & Ishigaki Island Japan and the last Sea Day

This post is being written in February 2020 well after our visit to Okinawa last October.

We arrived at the port of Naha which was our first stop in Southern Japan. During the included excursion we visited the Peace Park which is adjacent to the cliff seen in the photo above.

This cliff was the scene of mass suicides during the last days of WWII. Japanese has retreated to caves on these cliffs and when it was apparent that they were going to not withstand the American invasion, many chose to jump rather than be captured.

The nearby park serves as a memorial to both Japanese and allied soldiers who died during the invasion. There are large tablets with the names of the dead in alphabetical order with each country having a section. Like all such places it was beautiful, peaceful, somber and sad. At the center is a plaza overlooking the sea with a fountain that has both water and on certain days, flame all in a map of the area.

From the park, we drove along the coast and were dropped in the downtown.

We wandered up the shopping street enjoying the unusual items and people watching including the ladies in uniform offering tourist information-flight attendants in another life? We also had some purple yam ice cream. Very tasty!

Apparently the chef on the ship thought it was tasty too-look what was one of the desserts that evening!

The next day we stopped on Ishigaki Island just a little further south. This is mostly a resort community where northern Japanese come to get away from the cold..or retire to for the same reason.

Our included tour this day took us up to an overlook where the picture above and the two below were taken.

From there we headed to a cove where black pearls are cultivated and sold-very expensive-that’s a $1200 necklace and was among the cheapest on offer! We had a nice walk along the beach before returning to the bus.

Our final stop was at a weaver which was really a shopping place. This was the one tour that got pretty low marks from us on our review. Glad we hadn’t paid for it!

We did use up the last of the yen we had been carrying since we left Kyoto on some KitKat bars. KitKats are a favorite snack in Japan and they come in hundreds of flavors-we couldn’t decide between apple pie and yam but ended up with the yam. These (like the ice cream) were delish.

As in our previous port, we returned to the ship along with many other buses and found a long wait. This time is couldn’t be blamed on customs, it was purely having all 930 passengers arriving back to the ship about the same time.

I went and sat in the shade on one of the ginormous cleats that they use to tie up the ship while others waited in the hot sun. About the time Mike was on the gangway, the line was down to just a few and I was aboard five minutes after him cook and comfortable whether than hot and sweaty!

Our final sea day was the next day. I don’t know what we did but I suspect it was mostly be lazy. I do know we had a big breakfast and no lunch so we had room for Afternoon Tea. We really enjoy this complimentary affair on Viking. It is held in the Winter Garden each afternoon from 4-5 pm. Typically one of the musicians plays appropriate music, you select your tea from a huge menu (gunpowder? Green? Oolong? You have about 20 to choose from) and with your pot they bring a tray of sandwiches (menu changes daily) and pasteries. Then they pass warm scones. Usually these are accompanied by clotted cream and jam. However, we were served whipped cream instead of the clotted variety. Our Scottish friend Lady McGrath (we met she and Sir Brian aboard our first Viking transatlantic) complained about this and had been pleased when we reported that on our second transatlantic we were served “proper” clottted cream. I instagrammed some of these same pictures and was stopped the next day by the assistant waiter in charge of tea (that’s him in white chatting with the ship’s manager in charge of all the food venues) to invite me back. He said they had trouble provisioning clotted cream in Asia but had a small amount for those who asked. I guess we will have to come back!

As you can see, in honour of Lady McGrath we took the bottle of bubbly that was one of the perks for the upgraded cabin and made it a “Champagne Tea”. We can’t have tea everyday as it makes it impossible to enjoy the sushi and crab legs at Happy Hour! #FirstWorldProblems

We attended the show this evening as the whole cast was performing a show they put together, it was quite good.

We returned to our room to a beautiful moon lit night. Tomorrow we arrive in Xiamen for two days.

Shanghai Overnight and Sea Day

This post about our two days in Shanghai (and the following sea day last October) is being in Raleigh in early February.

After the relaxing day at sea, we arrived at the ocean entrance to the river that leads up to Shanghai before breakfast.

It was an interesting morning making the slow sail up river past industrial as well as commercial areas.

After a couple of hours we arrived at our pier just a few blocks from The Bund – the riverside walk that is near the center of the city. The view from our balcony was amazing!

After lunch we took the included tour. It started with a bus tour of the city with stops at the People’s Square (I guess it’s a law that every city have one) and in a historic area that has been redone for shopping and restaurants. I guess what works for developers in the US also works for them in China. Anyway, not a terribly enlightening tour but we did see some nice parts of the city and at least one adorable Chinese girl.

As with all the other cities in China, the National Day decorations were over the top.

Vanna points out another building apparently designed by that same architect we have seen previously. Here, it looked like their ought to be a laser shooting out of its top.

Adjacent to the square is the Shanghai City Museum unfortunately we didn’t have time to go inside.

Their were a bunch of pigeons and doves (aren’t they just fancy pigeons?) in a portion of the park. Lots of kids were feeding them including this cutie!

From the square we headed to the shopping stop. The older neighborhood had been beautifully rehabbed.

After a stroll around (we aren’t shoppers), we headed back towards the ship. The final stop was The Bund. From there, you could either ride the bus back or walk the four blocks. We elected to stay at the Bund as the light show was coming alive and it was also a great people watching place. Shanghai Fashion Week was getting started so we aren’t sure how may of the folks posing were models and how many were just getting their engagement pictures made…but boy did they go out!

We walked back to the ship and after dinner sat on our balcony and watched the boat and light show.

It was interesting at 11 pm to watch all the buildings go dark as they shut down their light shows.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, Mike and I walked downtown towards the metro station which was located on what our guide had described as the Rodeo Drive of Shanghai. We did pop into the Apple Store to see the new iPhone 11 but otherwise we didn’t stop. Along the way, we passed the Fairmont Peace Hotel which was originally the Sassoon House. Our friend Jane stayed here when she visited China after it first opened to foreigners. It’s a beautiful building but quite different than the modern Apple store.

The metro we were seeking was below the Apple store but unfortunately in order to take the train, we needed to break a larger bill so Mike ordered him a green tea with grapefruit drink. It was tasty and HUGE. Of course, after buying it we learned you couldn’t go through the subway gate with food or drink! So we found a bench while he tried to drink it all down.

It was funny to see the handles (with advertising!) which hung low-I really felt like a giant on the subway car.

The train ride was quick as we only were going two stops but it was under the river. We soon popped up right below the iconic Shanghai Television Tower.

While it had an observation deck, that wasn’t our destination. We were headed for the tallest building in China-the Shanghai Tower and the second-tallest in the World. Interestingly, in the same complex are the twelfth and thirty four tallest buildings.

At 128 stories tall, it’s certainly the tallest thing I’ve ever seen. Walking around the complex (probably a four block square area) left is both with sore necks.

Shanghai Tower’s exterior skin is a layer of transparent glass that twists around the circular (and vertical) interior. The double layer of glass provide heat and solar protection without the need to have reflective glass. The twisting is designed to help with wind and the seam down the side acts as a stop to keep winds from swirling around and around the building.

The building is divided into nine vertical neighborhoods-you can sorts see them in the picture above. At the base of each neighborhood is a two story sky lobby where dedicated double decked elevators take you when you visit that particular neighborhood. There are a total of 109 elevators in the building. We tried to get up to one of the upper sky lobbies but didn’t get further than the ground level lobby. It’s pretty swanky though.

To reach the observation deck on the 118th floor, we had to go down two stories and then we took the world’s second fastest elevator up. LBut of course first we got to go through a small museum about other tall buildings, the history of the Shanghai Tower, and models of it. All is this space is obviously used during busy tourist times as queuing space. Luckily that wasn’t an issue for us so we didn’t have to pay extra to “cut the line”.

Soon we were aboard the elevator and took the quick ride up.

It wasn’t quite as fast as that time lapse made it but at 18 meters per second (over 54 feet a second) it took under a minute to reach the top. There was minimal feeling of movement though the ears definitely popped!

The view from the top was pretty amazing including our ship!

But it was the idea that we were looking down on two of the world’s other tallest buildings that really made you realize just how high we were.

Of course there was a gift shop at the top (and another on the way out at the bottom)

The elevator ride down was not quite as fast, “only” 10 meters per second! It took about a minute. Pretty amazing. Here it is in normal time:

After reaching these heights we wandered through the underground mall that connects the three super tall high rises to the metro station and headed back to the other side of the river. Once we got there. We walked back to the ship along a less developed street. During the walk, we again saw lots of folks having their pictures especially the closer we got to the Bund. We could also see the tower we had just descended.

We got back to the ship and after a rest headed to the Chef’s Table for dinner. This is one of two alternative (but still complimentary) dining rooms on Viking. Here they have a menu that changes every three days. We have enjoyed our meals here before and were excited to try a new menu of a California cuisine. We were also excited when we entered to see Walter who had been a waiter aboard Sea when we sailed with Mike’s Mom last spring.

Everything was delicious though we found it odd that the dishes weren’t paired with California wines.

We had some onboard credit so I had the premium selections ($25 charge) while Mike had the included. Some (but not all) of the included were better to our palates than the premium.

We finished dinner and strolled around the upper deck taking in the light show once again before we set sail around midnight.

The next day was a sea day and we spent most of the morning on the balcony. It was wonderful to sit and read and enjoy the sound and sight of the ocean.

We went up to the pool deck for our favorite lunch (or at least one of them!) it was a beautiful day and they had the roof fully open. The pool grill prepares burgers, tuna, hot dogs, and wings to order. So we ordered a burger, dog and ohsotasty onion rings and split them half and half.

After lunch we had our first visit to Orion’s planetarium. This 26 seat theatre is only on two Viking ships. They show 3D movies about the solar system and occasionally use it as a real planetarium. While enjoyable, it is quite expensive to run and takes away a good bit of lounge space from the upper level of the Observation Lounge. It is my understanding that Viking is not putting one on it newest ship.

For dinner this evening, Viking set up the pool deck with various street foods and has a special cocktail. It was a fun evening and after our big lunch having a few (well some) small bites was just right-especially the fresh fruit including one of my favorites-Lychees!

It was a great way to end a relaxing sea day. Tomorrow we are back in Japan on Okinawa.

Qingdao

This post is being written well after our visit to Qingdao in October 2018.

After a short overnight sail across part of the Yellow Sea from Dalian we awoke in Qingdao-another huge city-about 6 million people. You may know about the city’s most famous export. Which is the phonetic (and an alternative) spelling of its name:

The included excursion here was a panoramic bus trip but with only two stops. But before we could get on the bus we had to do a death march to reach it. There is a new and beautiful terminal which serves ferries and cruise ships but it is huge and requires an incredibly long walk. According to the counter on my phone it was 3/4 mile from the ship to the immigration counter and then another 1/4 mile to the bus!

The terminal is new and there was a television reporter there interviewing some of our fellow guests. They said the questions were all about how much they liked Qingdao which were difficult to answer since all they had seen was the inside of the terminal! 😂

Once in the bus we rode through high rises (including some more ugly ones that must of been designed by that same architect from Dalian).

We eventually reached a sea side park where we had free time. We walked along the boardwalk a bit which had an interesting suspension portion, red National Day decorations and explored a couple of stores. One had nothing but dried seafood-fish, shrimp, scallops, etc. They also had Tsingtao beers so we bought the one pictured above.

From the boardwalk we were driven to a pier in another part of town. This pier is located at the public beach and as it was almost the end of the National Day holiday, there were lots of families enjoying a nice day walking to the pavilion at the end of the pier, some even were in the water though it was a little too cool for us.

We also a big rubber duck floating in front of some nearby high rises. Turns out it is public art and was originally installed as part of the 2014 Olympics-Dalian served as the location for the sailing completion. This duck and many others around the world were designed by Florintijn Hofman a Dutch artist.

From the pier we returned to the ship and enjoyed an “American BBQ” dinner on the pool deck. While not quite an American picnic-no potato salad??? For those of us who had been away from any bbq for a month at this point, we certainly enjoyed it!

After a relaxing day at sea doing not much but enjoying our balcony and the spa, we got ready for the cruise critic “Meet & Greet”. Cruise Critic is an online forum with cruise news, reviews and most importantly “boards” where one can ask and answer questions and “roll calls” where one can meet digitally fellow passengers on “your” cruise before you leave home. Many cruise lines host an event for the roll call members to meet face to face. Viking does a nice job serving cocktails, wine and beer and passing hors d’ouvres. They hold it in the Winter Garden and usually have one of the entertainers provide background music. Ours was attended by the Captain and all the Senior Officers.

It was great to put some faces with names and to meet some of the crew. After the meet and greet we decided to have a casual dinner at The World Cafe and started with escargot for me and sushi for Mike.

I don’t have any pictures of any other food so I suspect we were full and called it an evening!

Dalian

This post is being written in Arlington, Virginia well after the events described below took place.

After a lovely evening aboard Orion we docked in Dalian, China. Like Tianjin, the city was so much bigger than expected. When cruising most places in the world, the embarkation ports are typically big cities while the ports of call tend to be smaller. That certainly isn’t the case in China. It’s population in 2018 was over 5 million and its urban area is about 550 square miles. So it’s area is about the same as Houston, Texas with twice as many people!!!

It also has some buildings where the architect appeared to work just a little too hard to make it stand out.

As we would do in every port, we only took the excursion included in our cruise fare. One of the reasons we decided to do this cruise was to experience how Viking was on a real cruise-one with lots of ports, as opposed to the repositioning cruises we have taken with them before.

Typically, the excursions were “panoramic” (bus) tours with a stop or three at important places in the port. While we aren’t normally bus people, we wanted to figure out whether the included tours are a value to us if we decide to take any future cruises with Viking.

After joining our tour Groupons leaving the port, our first stop was at the People’s Square. In addition to the little fella at the top of this post there were many folks were enjoying the fourth day of the weeklong National Day holiday at this park with a huge fountain with synchronized music.

From the square we headed to another park, this one more wooded with a lovely lake. At the entrance was a man playing his guitar and the music could be heard throughout this part of the part making it very relaxing.

But the most memorable part of this park and in fact of all of Dalian was that this was called Marriage Square. Each Saturday, parents of unmarried children come here and place resumés of their children on the sidewalks (some with photographs) and then walk along and try to make dates for their kids. I expected there to be maybe fifteen or twenty parents doing this, but there were hundreds of resumés!

Just as Mike had experienced in Japan, the many Chinese want to use their english skills. I had two different gentlemen approach me obviously just wanting to practice their already very good English. One was there to try to find a date for his daughter. The other was a retired man who was just enjoying his day as were so many. As everywhere, the locals were taking pictures with China flags or having special entertainment just as we would on the 4th of July. Some others were in costume…was this our first Chinese Draq Queen?

From the park we headed out to the coast for our last stop where we walked across a suspension bridge that overlooked a lovely lighthouse.

From here we headed back to the ship passing along more beautiful parts of Dalian.

One of the many advantages of sailing with Viking is that rather than 2000-3000 passengers, there are only 930. Typically this makes returning to the ship very easy, just walk on, never a line. Well, this was not the case in China 😢. Due we think to the Chinese immigration and security, combined with the fact that almost all passengers were taking the included or ship’s sponsored excursions, we returned to a horribly long line. It took us over 45 minutes to get back aboard.

When we boarded in Tianjin, there was an envelope in the room for each of us notifying us that Viking had provided us with $150 credit to our onboard account. While I didn’t remember this being part of the promotion when we booked, I figured we had just forgotten about it. When I asked guest services at some point about it, they said it was too make up for some of the issues we would face in China. So I guess we shouldn’t complain too much about the long wait!

Once aboard, we had a delicious lunch of fish and chips with mushy peas while watching the sail away from Dalian. Tomorrow we will call at Quindao.

Tianjin

This post is being written in January 2020 but describes our day in Tianjin China back in October 2019.

While most aboard Orion were up very early to head for their 2+ hour bus ride to climb the Great Wall, Mike and I slept in and then enjoyed our first breakfast aboard. For longtime readers, you will remember our love of Viking’s grilled breakfast lamb chops and my favorite, the pistachio-raisin bun. What a tasty breakfast!

We were surprised when we got to The Restaurant to find one of the waitresses from our Spring Transatlantic aboard Viking Sea was serving us. After a hug, she asked where Miss Lois was! The Crew in Viking are really amazing.

Viking offers at least one “included” excursion in each port. In Tianjin, they offered two. One was a walk on the Great Wall and the other was a visit to Tianjin. Because we knew that the trip to the Wall was going to entail at least four hours in a bus and the section of the Wall being visited was likely to be crowded as it was a more restored section and would be visited in the middle of the National Holiday week, we elected to bypass the bus ride and the crowds. This was the biggest reason we had arranged our trip to China to include our visit to the Wall earlier in the week.

Unfortunately I failed to realize how far the port was from historic Tianjin so we still spent waaaay more time on a bus than I like! But nowhere near what those who went to the wall did. From what fellow passengers said on their return, we made the right decision. The ride to the Wall was about 2 hours as advertised, but depending on which bus you were on, some of those returning late in the day spent four hours aboard to get back to the ship. They got caught in traffic and apparently it was very crowded on the Wall also. So despite our long bus ride, looks like we made a good decision!

After our lamb chop breakfast, we met our guide on the pier and set off for Tianjin. On the way, she told us about herself, some history of China and about Tianjin.

After arriving at the historic part of Tianjin, she toured us through part of the main shopping street and pointed out interesting shops for those who wanted to make purchases. After we reached the center square, most (us included) explored further on our own. Mike and I then walked along the river before returning to the shopping streets. As you can see, big vases of flowers were here also to commemorate National Day.

We spent most of our time people watching (with the holiday there were plenty to watch!) and were amazed at some of the street food and especially the containers. See HUGE Coke cup at the top of this post. The top of the cup holds a snack (fries usually) while the bottom has the drink-ingenious! We also liked the fry holder with spots for sauces:

There was cotton candy like we’d never seen:

And an interesting drink poured from a huge teapot:

The variety of street food seemed endlesss:

But even more amazing than the woman making fried quail eggs on a stick was a guy making candy on a stick in incredible designs freehand!

After rejoining our guide, we returned to the ship and once the Wall folks made it back, departed port headed for Dalian. Below is a map of our cruise. As you can see, after three ports in China, we will visit the southern most island of Japan before our last two ports back in China. While there are only two official sea days, we have three overnights so hopefully we won’t be two rushed and get tired…and will have time to enjoy all the luxuries aboard our ship.

Bejing Day 5

This post describing our last day in Beijing is being written long after these events took place back in October. We are currently in Arlington, Va (DC) through the end of January after which we will spend a few weeks in Raleigh.

We awoke to cloudy skies followed quickly be a significant drizzle. After our last big Asian breakfast (I really learned to love a pork bun!) we boarded bus 16 for a quick drive to Tiananmen Square where the picture above is one of many taken with strangers that day.

This HUGE space which had been the seating area for guests during the National Day Parade was still decorated for the holiday with TV screens and huge vases of flower which only help to make it difficult to realize just how big it is. It is (according to Wikipedia) 109 acres/440,500 square meters/4,748,040 square feet. This makes it about the same size as the ground area around the Washington Monument in the District of Columbia. It is just huge. Located on the square are museums, the tomb of Chairman Mao and the official national flagpole which is across the street from the Gate of Heavenly Peace which serves as the entrance to the Forbidden City which is where we were heading.

After our long long walk across the square, we (and several thousands of our closest friends) took a tunnel under the wide street and then crossed a moat to reach the Gate of Heavenly Peace on the other side. That’s it above (and below) with Mao’s picture. This is the main gate into the Forbidden City but which had served the other day as the balcony from which the Chinese leader watched the parade and the evening pageant.

Once inside we toured the exterior grounds of this huge palace. It is quite beautiful but the most impressive thing is it’s size. Just enormous.

When we visited Xi’an (Terra Cotta Warriors) Rocky, our guide, had pointed out the upward curve of the roof. He told us to notice how much more curved they were at the Forbidden City-apparently it was a subtle evolution that each Emperor pushed on their buildings- how curved could the roof be. Rocky was right I think, but it’s pretty subtle. The first picture below is from Xi’an and the second from the Forbidden City. In any case, the roofs are pretty incredible.

After a no photo peek through plexiglass into the main building, we went through several courtyards and reached the area where the Emperor’s wives and concubines lived. These spaces were much more intimate and built to a human’s scale.

Along the walkways and in the courtyard were huge bronze pots-turns out these were water reservoirs for firefighting!

The details both wood and terra-cotta and the pavement patterns were beautiful.

As we exited the Forbidden City, we walked through a garden which I’m sure would have been really beautiful on a sunny day (with less people).

After reboarding our bus we headed out of Beijing passing many new modern buildings. It is impossible to portray just how huge the city is but trust me, it’s big.

The port for Beijing is Tianjin, a city of more than 12 million folks located about an hour and a half away. Unfortunately buses in China are only allowed to go 45 mph so it was closer to a two hour drive. Luckily, we stopped in the way for lunch. This was again a banquet hall in a skyscraper just outside Beijing and we had another delicious multi-course meal.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, though it was interesting to hear our fellow passengers (most of whom had arrived in China just two days ago) remark upon the seemingly endless new high rise towns that occurred every few miles along the entire route. Mike and I had grown accustomed to these towns, but it reminded us of our first thoughts in the train ride from Xi’an to Beijing.

Soon we arrived at the port and joined the long queue to check in. This was a first for us with Viking. Normally, there is very little wait. But since most everyone on the ship was using a Viking transfer-those of us on the pre-cruise extension as well as those who either bought (or were given) their air through Viking, I guess we all arrived about the same time.

But soon we were aboard our home for the next 15 days!

You may recall that when we got the email with the promotion that resulted in us changing our original plans (cruise to Japan/fly to Hawaii/cruise to Seattle) to take this cruise and visit China instead, that the promo was a cabin upgrade. Rather than a Veranda cabin (the lowest Viking offers) we were assigned a Deluxe Veranda. The cabin is the same size but in addition to an in-room Nespresso coffeemaker the refrigerator drawer is refilled daily with sodas and snacks. While we were in Japan, we were offered a $199 per person upsell to a Penthouse Veranda. This room is larger (it’s biggest selling point), the fridge is replenished daily but this time includes alcohol and your clothes are pressed for free. After a short discussion, we decided this might be our only chance to experience one of these rooms (if we had of booked it initially it would have cost an additional $1000 per person) so we took the plunge.

As you can see, the room has a large sofa and a chair as opposed to just two chairs and had much more room at the end of the bed making it easier to move around. And since the room is wider, so is the balcony.

Mike and I disagree as to whether we would splurge on this upgrade again. I think I would prefer to put the money towards the alcohol package but Mike really enjoyed having the extra room and the sofa.

Our first task was to use the complementary launderette since we had only a pair of clean socks apiece! We loaded up all four washers on our floor and soon had a pile of clothes ready for the complimentary (or $199 in our case!😂) pressing and the other clothes put away and could start to enjoy being home again on Viking.

Before heading to dinner, we had a glass of bubbly and our usual sushi, shrimp and crab legs on the Aquavit Terrace on the stern of the ship. Tomorrow, we will take the included excursion into Tianjin and then set sail.

Happy 2020!

Mike and I hope everyone had a great holiday and that 2020 will treat each of you well.

After spending Christmas in Danville with Mike’s family (including the Burton family traditional Long John Silver’s Christmas Eve dinner pictured above and at Lois’ church’s Candlelight service) we spent the interval before New Year’s with mine in Charleston (where we cheered on the Clemson Tigers to victory and hope they will do the same in the National Championship next week-that’s Niece Madison below ready for the game to start and me in my last year’s shirt)

We had a great time with my brother, Steve, his wife Georgette and niece Madison and nephew Jack (pictures above).

Food was abundant everywhere. We had Christmas dinner in both Danville and Charleston

as well as osso bucco prepared by sis-in-law Jennifer in Danville and prime rib in Charleston.

All of this was augmented by baked goods Mike made in Danville before Christmas. We made cookies, white trash crackers, cranberry bliss bars, coconut cake, sausage balls, three kinds of bark. Some was packaged and taken as gifts to friends in Raleigh we visited during the weekend before Christmas and others were (and continue to be!) desserts.

Before leaving Charleston, we had a quick lunch with my college chum Chris (that’s him Vanna is pointing to below)

That reminds me, on our way from the cruise to Danville, we stopped in Greenville and visited friends Claudia and Klase. It was great to catch up!

Oops, now that I’ve mentioned them, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that we stopped and saw the other person in this pack-Barry (and his wife Sherron and daughter Grace) in Orlando before the cruise.

Oh crap…now I’m going backwards instead of forward in time. One more shoutout to Karen and this whole college group will be done.

We saw Karen in Dallas before we got to Houston back in November. Anyway, seeing friends and family is what this tie of year is all about!

I promise I’m gonna catch up starting with boarding the cruise in China and all of the roadtrip that got us back to Houston. But for now, let me tell you what’s happened since we left Charleston.

We drove to Richmond in New Year’s Eve-the title picture of this post was taken as we reentered Virginia. We had a great New Year’s Eve dinner with my high school friend Frances and her hubby Larry. That’s her and Mike below.

On New Year’s Day, we drove to Arlington and checked into our home for the month of January. We are in the same building as Mike’s college chum Yost and his husband Sam. Longtime readers may recall that we have traveled with them several times (river cruise, Mike’s and Yost’s 50th Birthday in Italy, etc) and that Yost was the impetus to us retiring early. When we found an Airbnb available in their building we thought now was a great time for us to spend some more time with them.

We are working on our plans for 2020-it is likely to include a spring transatlantic cruise and in April, Niece Madison is going to come visit us as her high school graduation present. It will be great to be with her the first time she see Europe!

A short budget update, we just reconciled 2019 and as expected we were over our budget but by less than $3000 which given the unplanned China trip we feel pretty good about. Also, until the stock market reacts to this craziness in Iran, we currently have significantly more money in our portfolio than we did on February 2, 2018 when we quit work!

Best wishes to all for a great 2020 from Vanna, the Christmas Unicorn and me!

Bejing Day 3

This post is being written in Houston almost two months after the events described below.

Introducing Lois Clara Burton-Clayton! Just kidding, while this lovely girl was sweet enough to adopt and bring home, we didn’t. More about her later.

This is our last day spent independently in China. When we booked our hotels and tours with China Highlights I asked them to suggest a half day experience after which they would drop us off at the hotel where Viking Cruises had us booked. (We looked at trying to stay at the same hotel the entire time but the JW Marriott was much more expensive than the Crown Plaza). It was suggested we take their Life Discovery Walking Tour. We would visit a temple, a market and walk through the traditional housing neighborhood. It turned out to be a great way to spend our morning.

Our first stop was the market. Because it was the day after the holiday, it was not as crowded as usual but we still enjoyed learning about the foods and other foods sold here. It was amazing to see how many bottles of soy sauce there were!

From the market we walked a block to the temple which has the oldest pagoda in Beijing. We had to wait a minute or two for the temple to open. It was so nice to be there early when there were only a few worshippers and no other tourists! This temple was definitely off the beaten path. The last picture below is us with our guide CoCo.

From the temple we walked through a late eighties neighborhood and crossed a canal which was originally the most on the outside of Beijing’s City Wall. Except for one small section, the City Wall was demolished when the Communist took over and wanted to expand the City. Along the walk we saw that the parked cars all had cardboard or wooden squares leaning against their tires-CoCo explained to us that this was to keep dogs from christening the tires! We also saw a number of the three wheeled vehicles Mike is standing beside. We figured if we had one of those apiece we could probably make it work for us!😂

We then continued through a decorated park towards the traditional neighborhood. The park was in the midst of a National Day Festival so we got to see some traditional groups singing and dancing along with LOTS of Chinese families out enjoying their holiday. It was also fun to see older folks practicing Tai Chi and playing hacks sack.

After leaving the beautiful park we stopped on the street to have a Jian Bing. This is the Chinese version of a breakfast taco or crepe. A thin batter is poured on a crepe griddle and swirled using one of those crepe sticks, then an egg is broken and also swirled in top, scallions (and other veggies if you like) are them pushed into the egg. The whole thing is flipped, a bean paste (with chili’s if you like it spicy) is spread on the top, a fried cracker is placed on top (along with a hot dog if you want one) and then the crepe/egg is folded around it. Sounds crazy and we weren’t sure we would like it but OMG it was delicious. We now understood why we saw so many folks having them for breakfast.

We went to a nearby park to sit a bit and eat our Jian Bing’s and this is where we met Lois Clara (makes after Mike and my mom). We watched her and some other kids playing while we ate and as had been the case prior and would become even more so as we visited sights during the National Holiday crowds, many Chinese were fascinated with us-my height, Mike’s gingerish hair, and our beards. Lois Clara started staring and after the smile you seen in the title picture to this post, she came over and started rubbing the hair on my arm and legs and feeling my beard. Soon her brother? (Bobby Jack?) joined her and did the same with Mike. I guess since the Chinese have so little, it was probably the first time they had seen anything other than head hair. We had a good time smiling and taking pictures-even if we didn’t get the little “Mai Ling” we have always said we should adopt to do windows and clean up after us! 😂 of course as they we left they and the other children said “bye bye” which is apparently one of the first English phrases Chinese learn. So adorable. Encounters like this were some of the most memorable parts of our visit.

We then walked through a Hutong-the traditional neighborhood in Beijing. These narrow streets have buildings on each side which have four or six apartments entered through a gate into an even narrower alley-more like a tiny long narrow courtyard. Typically a multigenerational family shares each of the small apartments along this secondary alley. So there might be 16-24 people living off each one. Talk about dense living!

While of course we didn’t go through the gates into the actual alley, we learned the apartments apparently have kitchens and showers but toilets are communal for six or eight of the buildings – so 120 or more share the bathroom down the street. CoCo said lots of people like living in the Hutong as it is very cheap but she said she left as soon as she could as she didn’t like having to walk down the street in the middle of the night if nature called. The Hutong we walked through was obviously one of the poorer ones-we saw others (near Tianmen Square and the Summer Palace) which looked to have been restored historic ones and were quite beautiful (in a SoHo sorta way rather than the one below which was more “Brewster project like”).

The driver picked us at the end of the Hutong and we headed to lunch. We didn’t know it until we arrived, but one of the restaurant’s specialties was Peking Duck. We were excited as we wanted to experience this while in Beijing but it appeared from our research that getting authentic duck was expensive and we didn’t want to spend a lot of it wasn’t what it was supposed to be. CoCo ordered for us and said she thought a half of a duck for us would be plenty. She also helped us order some stir fried veggies to go with it as well as stirfried asparagus and mushrooms. Soon one of the carvers arrived to show us our duck (and we failed to get a picture) and then took it around the corner to carve. They do an incredible job of thinly slicing the duck and it’s fatty crispy glossy skin-traditionally a whole duck is sliced into 120 slices. We didn’t count but 60 slices sounds about right for what came back to the table along with the pancakes and the toppings-dark and light sauces, scallions and cucumbers, our veggie side dishes and a delicious beer. It was a yummy and filling lunch especially after our Jian Bing snack.

After lunch, we were driven to our new hotel and said goodbye to CoCo. The JW was swanky with a beautiful lobby where we saw a Viking banner welcoming us. While I was checking us into the hotel, Mike checked in with Viking and got information on what time we would meet for tour of the Summer Palace the next morning. Our room was huge as was the bathroom-we could get used to living the high life!

After checking our our room and relaxing a bit, we headed out with the intention of walking to Tiananmen Square to see it up close in the evening. Unfortunately after the almost mile and a half hike to get there we discovered long lines to get through security and that a passport was needed (ours were in the safe in our room) so we made the death march back to the hotel. Luckily there were some decorations along the way but by that point we were a bit peckish but didn’t need a full meal so after a frustrating ride up and down five flights of escalators at the mall next door and a little hangry induced meltdown (we are so lucky we rarely argue that when we do it seems catastrophic) we bought that most Chinese of food-a tuna fish sandwich from Subway and ate it in the room. LOL