Cruise Report # Fifteen – Day 21 – Friday, October 12, 2007

In Port – Xingang, Peoples Republic of China – Beijing, PRC

From the ship’s Navigator

Today we will embark the local pilot at 5:30 am. Thereafter we continue on a westerly heading towards our berth at Xingang, PRC. The total sailing distance between Dalian and Xingang is 200 nautical miles. The weather forecast predicts an outside temperature of 59 degrees and a fresh breeze blowing from the east-northeast with a force of 5.

The port of Xingang lived up to my expectation of what most of China would look like, dingy and grey from smog. Our disembarkation was held up a bit as we waited for Chinese immigrations to clear the ship and passengers. It seams they have to check each passport each time we enter port, just to make sure we have slipped nothing by them from the previous port.

Ni hao! – Hello

Our tour bus was very clean and our tour guide, Dennis, did not disappoint us with his knowledge and polite demeanor. (In the suit) His command of the English language was excellent, and his occasional attempts at humor were dry – but amusing. He shared that he was getting married in January 2008, and lamented as to how traditionally it is the groom and his family who foots the bill in preparation for the wedding, which includes the purchase of a car and apartment. He referred to his family unit as 4 – 2 – 1; four grandparents, two parents, and one child. Since most families, except farmers, are raising only one child, the attention they get from six adults turns them into spoiled “Little Emperors”. Anyone who has seen the movie “The Last Emperor” will understand that term.

Our trip into Beijing was scheduled to take three hours, depending on the traffic. Once we left the dirty, dusty streets of the port, and entered the Expressway/Toll road, we made pretty good time. There was one stop at a “rest area” for shopping and potty break. There are usually long line-ups in front of the ladies restroom as there are limited “western style” toilets, the majority of the stalls are equipped with ceramic “pits” to squat over – good news though – they had doors – some don’t.

We were surprised and pleased as the closer we got to the heart of Beijing, the skies were clear and the much “anticipated” pollution was minimal. Even though the main thoroughfare we were traveling through the city was wide, clean and modern, the countryside we traveled through on our way was quite different. It is obvious the government has put a lot of money into re-forestation. How far from the major roadways this extends into the countryside, we couldn’t tell. We saw a lot of farmland, but the methods we observed was labor intensive. A lot of field workers were in the field. One interesting use of the paved country roads was to dry farm produce in one traffic lane, which I think was corn.

I could fill this whole report with “traffic” stories, but I will address that later. Picture logs of all sizes and shapes, flowing down a swift moving river, without regard to any obstacles, that’s Chinese traffic! One must remember that just a few short years ago, a large percentage of the population rode bicycles, now the citizens are driving cars and do not seem to have any concept of traffic laws and safety as it applies to automobiles.

Our first stop in the capitol city was a visit to the old residential area – Hutongs. Located in the center of Beijing, Hutongs are back alleys where old traditions remain very much alive. We were all loaded onto two person pedicabs (Rickshaws on a tricycle frame), and hurled down narrow alleys. Our trip was made interesting as the driver maneuvered around oncoming pedestrians, bicycles and an occasional car. In addition one side of the alley was an open trench in which thick power cables were being placed. Every time we slowed or stopped, we were set upon by street vendors, who followed us and continued their “pitches” until we arrived at a family residence and were ushered into their courtyard. One of the family members, the wife, was on hand to explain, through an interpreter, what traditionally family life was like, and how many family members were living there and how the rooms were ordered according to “feng shui”. We were free to wander in and out of their Kitchen, Living room and one bedroom. Outdoor space, even parts of the roofs and courtyard were used for their garden. Heating and cooking was accomplished using coal or wood. One room, which faced and led into the street, was a studio, where exquisite art work was produced, all of course for sale to our group. Upon our exit, the vendors were lying in wait to sell baseball caps, silk (?) purses, guidebooks, Rolex watches, postcards, etc. Prices of items varied depending on how many you wanted to buy and how close they were to losing you to another vendor. We had to walk about a block to where our pedicabs waited to take us back to our bus. There was no set price for the drivers, but a minimum of one or two dollars was recommended. Later, on the bus, our guide told us how to say, very politely “No Thank You” in Chinese – Boo Shi-Shi, and when we tried it on the next hoard of street vendors – it worked!

Our next stop was lunch. We were escorted through a beautiful park and garden to the Fangshan Restaurant, once a royal kitchen serving the imperial family in the Qing Dynasty. We were seated at a table for ten, with the first course of our lavish lunch already in place. We were served hot tea, beer and regular cokes, diet cokes cost extra. After we finished most of our starters, the plates of food never seemed to stop. Our final course, the dessert, was chunks of hot apple that were covered with candy syrup which created long strings as each piece was lifted into the air and then dipped in cold water and placed on your plate. Very impressive, but by that time no one had much of an appetite?

To work off this fabulous lunch we were taken to the front gates of the Forbidden City, where the buses parked. Once again there were hordes of people, but this time they were all tourists. Our guide Dennis told us that our (HAL) tour buses were the only ones permitted to park in this location, because the “police had been paid”. I think what he was saying was, our buses had “permits”. We had great parking spaces everywhere we were driven both days.

Between the 15th and early 20th centuries, this magnificent complex, containing 210 acres of pavilions, gardens, was home to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, Considered one of the greatest feats in human history, the city’s construction is presently one of the largest and best-preserved palace complexes in the world, and was used in the filming of the movie “The Last Emperor”. In the center of all this, the largest building is currently undergoing a facelift, just in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. This process did not detract from the overall beauty and grandeur of the palace. It didn’t hurt that the sun was shining, and the late hour of the afternoon made for dramatic lighting.

It was early evening as our buses picked us up and drove through masses of cars, and after making a complete 360 degree circuit, parked in front of the Government History Museum across from Tian An Men Square. This square is approximately 100 acres in size and can accommodate more than one million people. By now the sun had set, but it seemed bright as day, with the way the square and surrounding building were lit up. There was a massive garden display depicting the road from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece to the Square. The building which we were parked in front of had a massive countdown clock to the beginning of the games in August of next year. After we had a group picture taken, which will be included in a memory book, we were given time to stroll around before boarding the buses. To the young people of China, this is their Washington DC, and they need something upon which to build their hopes and dreams for the future. However Barbara and I have mixed feelings for this particular location.

Tomorrow we will tour the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, and a government owned Jade factory, but tonight we will be staying in the New Otani Hotel, with all its western style facilities and services, including an all you can eat evening buffet and breakfast.

Till then, we send our regards.

Jack and Barbara

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