Friday, June 30, 2017

与维京下来长江 - Down the Yangtze with Viking

Let the adventure begin!
Neither Dave nor I had ever traveled in China so we wanted professional help on this adventure. Now that I’ve been there, I would not hesitate to go by myself rather than on a tour; the people are friendly, many speak English, and most of the street signs are in English. My friend who grew up in Hong Kong reminded me that the Chinese people are raised to be polite and to behave appropriately; this does not mean that they agree with you or understand how you think. They will treat you with respect and they expect the same in return; I’m quite comfortable with that and ready to go to China, again. Simply sitting in a garden or a café is entertaining, but these activities do not begin to span the variety of amusements available. Also, there is no shortage of places to eat or places to stay. For information about my rating system, see Reading the Reviews.

Where we stayed:
Five Carrots
Kerry Hotel (86 Guanghua Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100020, 86 10 6561 8833) is the only truly 5 star hotel at which we’ve ever stayed. The service attitude began at check-in when we were served a cup of refreshing sweet lemon tea while waiting for our room keys. 
Top L to R: Bathroom, bedroom
Center: Bedroom
Bottom L to R: Automatic toilet, toilet controls
Dave thought it was hand sanitizer at first and only just missed sticking his fingers in it; jet lag is so entertaining. The next pleasant surprise was that all of the electrical outlets are international – no need for any sort of adaptor – and there were a plethora of them. The desk had a small amount of things you might need for business: paper clips, rubber bands, stationary, scissors, tape, pencils, pens, and so forth. The free internet was blazing fast, but there is no access to Google or Facebook; these are banned in China. The room, itself, was spacious and comfortable with a lovely couch that allows you to look out of the window while reclining. The beds have an assortment of pillows so that if you don’t like soft and squishy, you can have firm ones. As in Europe, there is only a duvet on the bed rather than a sheet and blanket. We weren’t fond of not having a sheet, but probably could have requested one if we’d thought to do so. Fresh apples were provided in the room for you to eat at your leisure and there was a free minibar for Viking folks. The bathroom was spectacular unless you’re short, then reaching the towels over the bathtub was problematic since the end of the tub was around a corner from the shower. I had to stand in this extra-large tub to reach the towels. There was also a clothes line over the tub, again a bit of a stretch for people of short stature. The shower, next to the tub, could accommodate four people and included your choice of hand-held shower or a rain shower. The towels were soft and fluffy with the name of the hotel on them. There was a drawer with toothpaste, tooth brushes, razor and cream, make-up removers, ‘ear buds’, a hair band, and a shower cap. These are replenished as you use them. If you stayed a week you might use up the soaps, shampoos, and lotions. The toilet was a bit scary: it sensed when you come into the room and provided light; no blinding guests with a blazing light when they have to use the facilities in the middle of the night. It also had an array of buttons for your cleaning preferences. When you close the lid it flushes and probably sanitizes itself. The only issue we had with our room was the first night. The master switch turned on all of the lights and the air conditioning. Once the master switch was off, the air conditioning went off automatically at some point, so if you’re not dead asleep the stuffy room will wake you. We couldn’t turn out the lights and leave the air conditioner on . . . but a day later we learned the trick! The switches beside each bed controlled the lights, leaving the air conditioning at the setting we required. Had we asked someone he/she would have been more than happy to help. We found the food, service, and furnishings at the Kerry to be exceptional.

Four and one-half carrots

(Bund Center, 88 Henan Central Road, Shanghai, Shanghai, 200002, China, 86-
Left: View of the lighted buildings
Right: Statue of warrior
21-6335-1888) was nicer than the Sheraton, but not as nice as the Kerry. The room was lovely; but the toilet didn’t flush itself. The bed was quite comfortable and there was plenty of room to re-pack our bags, work at the desk, and hang out the window watching the light show on the buildings. The bathroom was large with plenty of amenities. And evidently neither Dave nor I took any pictures of the room – an odd first in our travels, but we did get pictures of the buildings with dancing lights and the enormous statue in the hallway.

Four carrots
Sheraton Xian Hotel (San Hao Lu, TuMen ShangQuan, Baoan Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China, 710077, +86 29 8426 1888) looked as good as the Kerry and we were excited about our room when we got in. I’d never seen a bathtub that, with the wall open, 
Left T to B: Bedroom, bathroom
Right: Safe sex
you could sit in and still look out of the window at the city. However, the room was hot with no way to get it much cooler, quickly. There were two trashcans, but one was for recycling (near the bed) and one was for other refuse (inside the toilet area). There was only one tissue box and it was well hidden in the bathroom. The shower, while quite large, had a loose piece of tile over the drain area so if you accidentally stepped on it, there was a rocking motion. The controller for the shower showed a bathtub, which was across the room, and lead you to believe that the other direction was the hand-held shower. This wasn’t the case and I got a rather cold surprise from the rain-shower that was recessed into the ceiling. There was a temperature control below the on/off controller to maintain temperature, but it vacillated between cold and hot at random intervals. When you turned the shower off, you had to be careful or you’d get another dose of cold water from straight above your head. Evidently the staff at the hotel care about safety since there were condoms in a drawer along with a book on how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases; not something one would normally find in US hotel rooms, but perhaps one should. This was a nicely decorated room, but I wish there had been more functionality.

Viking Emerald was close to what we expected from the tour line. It was interesting to find
Top: Bedroom and balcony
Bottom: Bathroom
that China won’t let Viking bring their ships here, but will build/modify a ship to Viking’s specifications. Getting down to the ship at Chongqing was surprising. The path down to the river was very steep and there were guys with bamboo poles who carry the bags down like water buckets – a load on either end of the pole. You then have to proceed along a rickety walkway across the quay to get to the ship. The boat was pretty – taller than the European long-boats but about the same length. There were only about 120 of us on board plus the crew. Our stateroom was larger than the last one we had, and there was a nice balcony. Every few days we had fresh fruit – apples, berries, and something that looked a bit like a persimmon, but had a mild, sweet flavor. Smoking was only allowed on the back, top deck, so we didn’t get the smell of cigarettes. Our room had good air conditioning. The boat, itself, was okay; here were some uneven floors here and there, but the accommodations were comfortable. While the bathroom was small, the bedroom was large enough for us to walk around in without banging into each other. There was even room for one of us to sit at the desk while the other sat on the couch. The bed was comfortable and there were a selection of pillows. Our cabin steward made sure that everything was clean and fresh each day without being obtrusive. We were well pleased with the accommodations.

 What we ate:
Four and one-half carrots
The Peking Duck Dinner was in a very upscale shopping mall in the middle of the city: Hua’s Fine Dining Restaurant at Wangfujing (3/F Macau Center, No. 8 Wangfujing East Avenue, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 86 10 5128 3326). We were seated at a table for 10 
Left: Dinner selections
Right: Chef deboning duck
with the group that was fast coming to be known as the ‘trouble makers’; everyone wanted to sit with us. The evening was a series of ‘lots’: lots of teasing, lots of story-telling, lots of laughter, and LOTS of food. In general, at restaurants the tables had a ‘lazy Susan’ wheel that passed the food around. This was a good thing since reaching across the table was next to impossible. It was also a bad thing because you had to quickly make your choices and hope that there was plenty for everyone to taste – not a problem here. Between the tables were centers at which the chefs (about 10 of them) deboned the ducks, wielding knives at an astounding rate that made several of us count the chefs’ fingers just to make sure they were intact. Peking Duck in China is different from what we get in the States; the skin was not crispy and was removed by the chefs, but the meat was succulent with none of the sort of greasy taste that accompanies some poultry. The duck was served with ‘pancakes’ that were much like crepes. You put the duck, some vegetables, some plum sauce (with horseradish) on the pancake, rolled it up and ate it. This was followed by more vegetables, shrimp, dumplings, soup, and finally dessert that was fruit (watermelon and tomato) along with some gelatin squares that were concentrated, flavored bean curd and concentrated cranberries. The food was delightful and kept coming until we were all completely satiated.

Kerry Hotel (86 Guanghua Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100020, 86 10 6561 8833)
Dumplings and fruit
provided a breakfast that was a spectacular visual and epicurean treat. Asian and western foods were prepared as you ordered at the buffet that probably had well over a hundred items from which to choose. Dave and I both went back for more. We also had a buffet lunch was at the hotel – again, more food than any group of people could possibly eat. It was all good. Dave had chicken, pork and beef along with vegetables. I had everything cold that I could find: salad, fruit, sushi, potato balls fixed as if they were in potato salad. The food was all fresh and the presentation, even on the buffet, was appealing. It was interesting that beer was considered a ‘soft drink’ throughout China, making it included with your meal while wine was an additional cost.

Tang Dynasty Dinner and Show (75, Changan North Road, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, 86 29 878 22222) was a special treat. The food was excellent and the chefs went to great pains to
Center: Women playing traditional instruments
Top L to R: Ribs, shrimp
Bottom L to R: Soup, barbecue
make sure that I didn’t get any onions or spinach. We were introduced to warm, rice wine. It was sweet but I couldn’t detect any alcohol; I had substantial amounts of this beverage while I waited for my food to come out. The dinner and show certainly were worth the extra cost and effort to go to this presentation.

Viking Emerald had the quality and quantity of good food and service that we expected. If I
Left T to B: Soup, braised beef, mousse cake
Right T to B: Fish cake, cheese plate
put in pictures of all the food we ate and enjoyed on the ship, there would be pages of images; it was all very good. It has been months and a trip or two later and I still miss Lucy and Neal, our servers. They were neat kids: Neal was a talented dancer and Lucy was just stinkin’ cute with a great sense of humor. The service was what we expected from Viking, but I will say that there was no one except ‘hotel manager’, who was Italian, who didn’t need more practice with English. The chef talked to me quite a bit, trying to make sure that I got the right foods; he would make some things especially for me, but really encouraged me to choose foods that didn’t require extra preparation – no chives was not a problem; no onions was in some cases, particularly the Chinese dishes. However, he and the maître d' did try their best to communicate with me. I loved all of the noodle dishes and found that I could eat them daily without growing tired of the flavors. Dave commented at the end of the trip that he could bypass Asian food for a while once we got home; he was ready for a burger and fries.

Four carrots
Weston (Bund Center, 88 Henan Central Road, Shanghai, Shanghai, 200002, China, 86-21-6335-1888)  Dinner buffet was spectacular with on-demand food cooked to your 
Top: Tiny part of the buffet
Bottom: Breakfast noodles
specifications, noodles, seafood, salads, meats, sushi, and more desserts than you can imagine; a truly amazing spread. Our second night we had a specially prepared bento box at the hotel that was rather disappointing. I did wish we had just done the buffet, again; it was great! The breakfast buffet was also very nice – there were lots of noodle dishes and all sorts of American/British offerings.

Three and one-half carrots

Food and shopping (various places during the trip) were standard lunch activities throughout the tour. And while they were certainly acceptable, only a couple particularly stood out. At the jade store they prepared a head of broccoli for me so that I would not go hungry by missing the one dish with onion in it. There was also something called ‘firewater’ that Dave and another guy drank – it was a lot like grappa. At the store that sold the Terracotta Warrior replicas there was a man making fresh noodles – fun to watch and good to eat. 
Three carrots
Sheraton Xian Hotel (San Hao Lu, TuMen ShangQuan, Baoan Qu, Xian Shi, Shaanxi Sheng, China, 710077, +86 29 8426 1888) was, again, quite a comedown from our usual experiences. At breakfast, some of the food seemed to be left over from the previous day because it was cold although presented under a heat lamp. The fried eggs were like eating rubber. There was sushi that looked fresh and some hot cereal. The bread seemed day-old, too. Dave and I were under-whelmed.

What we did: 
Learning to play mayhjong
Much of what we did has already been chronicled in the blogs, so there are links to these rather than a re-hash. There is nothing I wouldn’t do again, and several things I’d like to do more of – such as visiting museums. The main issues were time, the number of other tourists, and our lack of contact with local entrepreneurs rather than state-approved vendors.

Four and one-half carrots

Bund cruise was spectacular. Although it was raining, we still got to see lots of lights and the buildings doing their thing. (see 踏上上海 - Stepping out in Shanghai)

Cenhe Elementary School (Outside of Jingzhou): see 跳到荆州和武汉 Jumping over to Jingzhou and Wuhan.

Forbidden City (4 Jingshan Front St, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100006): see 在北 - Being in Beijing.

Goddess Stream Excursion (Qingshi Town, China): see 穿過重慶和三 Chugging through Chongqing and the Three Gorges.

Legend of Kung Fu (The Red Theater, 44 Xing Fu Da Jie, Chongwen District, Beijing, 86 29 671 42473) was the site of an interesting performance. When I see the title ‘King Fu’ I sort of expect Bruce Lee or David Carradine to jump out on the stage kicking bad guys, bricks, or other offending items. This was the story of a little boy who goes to the monastery to learn the art of kung fu. It follows his life from that time forward. The men and boys in the production did a mixture of martial arts and acrobatics. Two women also were there, but they did something along the lines of ballet. There were special effects such as smoke, projected images, flying on silk, and flashing lights. My favorite parts were those that included the dancing dragons. 

Sacred Way (Changchi Rd, Changping Qu, China, 86 10 6076 1422): see 在北 - Being in Beijing.

Shanghai Museum (201 Renmin Ave, RenMin GuangChang, Huangpu Qu, China, 200003, 86 21 6372 3500): see 踏上上海 - Stepping out in Shanghai.

Tang Dynasty Dinner and Show (75, Changan North Road, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, 86 29 878 22222) is the story of how an empress came to power. The musical instruments used were traditional Chinese ones; some of the atonal parts were a bit hard to take. However, when the warm-up singer sang Red River Valley, we all about had a fit. The dancing for the musical wasn’t traditional al la Shen Yun Performing Arts. This was more ballet for the women and acrobatics for the men. It was interesting and entertaining. There were great costumes and a very thought-provoking story! 

Terracotta Army (Lintong, Xi'an, Shaanxi, China, 86 29 8139 9001): see 与勇士一起走 - Walking with the Warriors.

Four carrots

Great Wall at Badaling (Yanqing, China, 86 10 6912 1226): see 在北 - Being in Beijing.

Hubei Museum (160 Donghu Rd, Wuchang Qu, Wuhan Shi, Hubei Sheng, China, 86 27 8679 4127): see 跳到荆州和武汉 Jumping over to Jingzhou and Wuhan. It’s pretty amazing what Viking can do. On a Monday with all of the museums closed, we still got in to see the main exhibit.

Hutong Tour (intersection of Gulou West Street, Gulou East Street, and Di’anmen Outer Street): see 在北 - Being in Beijing.

Shanghai Acrobatic Troup (West Office Tower, Suite 710, 1376 Nanjing Road West, Shanghai 200040 P.R. China, 86 21 6279 8600) performed acts that were a mix what was of really ‘old hat’ and amazing. There were four men who slung porcelain pots in the air and caught them on their necks, heads, noses, arms, and other body parts. The older/bigger guy slung a bigger pot. There were several sets of acrobats, who performed strength moves while others exhibited their flexible moves. There were some girls spinning drums, a couple who balanced crockery, chairs, and other household things, and a guy who did the flex/strength moves on stilts. The magician would have been better if we could have actually seen what he did rather than just that he produced pigeons. A girl did a lovely dance/tumble act with a giant hula hoop. There was, however, and act with a couple of flexible bars that two guys held on their shoulders while two other guys bounced around on the bars. The most incredible part of this act was when one came out with a young girl on his shoulders and proceeded to do a flip on the bar with her staying in place. We couldn’t figure out if she had Velcro on her knees or was just pinching his neck with her thighs; in any case it was pretty spectacular. 

Shibaozhai Temple (Zhongxian, Chongqing, China, 86 23 5421 5063): see 穿過重慶和三 Chugging through Chongqing and the Three Gorges.

Three Gorges Dam (China, Hubei Sheng, Yichang Shi, Yiling, 86 717 676 3498): see 穿過重慶和三 Chugging through Chongqing and the Three Gorges. Dave loved this tour, but I was not as impressed.

Tiananmen Square (Corner of West Chang’An Avenue and Gangchang East Side Street, Beijing Shi, China, 100006): see 在北 - Being in Beijing.

Yuyuan Garden (218 Anren St, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai Shi, China, 86 21 6326 0830): see 踏上上海 - Stepping out in Shanghai.

Where we shopped:
Three carrots

Street art showing the bringing of water
For me, shopping was problematic. I am not into high-end souvenirs, but rather hand-made ‘of the people’ sorts of things. I also want to know about the artist rather than be greeted by a rather pushy sales person. Street vendors had lots of goods to sell, but most seemed massed produced for the tourists rather than by some local artisan. John did say that if we bought things from street vendors to give them exact change because we could get back counterfeit or foreign (not Chinese) money – quite a curious practice if you want to keep attracting tourists.

There were always vendors at the dock near the boat, but two groups actually had titles. These were the ‘Hello’ group and the ‘Maybe Later’ group. These were catch phrases for them to grab the tourists’ attention. The vendors’ English was pretty good, and they did have a wide array of things for you to peruse. One of the bits of technology they used was the language translator – we spoke English into their phones and they got the Chinese version back.

One of the state approved shopping areas is a place that makes replicas of the Terracotta Warriors. You can get any size from about six inches to full-scale. They make these by
Left: Statues for sale
Right T to B: Making the warriors, friendly rabbit
pressing clay into a mold, removing it once it is dry, then cleaning up the model. It is then fired in a kiln: once to harden the clay and once to set the glaze. Full-scale and half-scale models are shipped to the consumer by boat; smaller once travel via UPS, and tiny soldiers can be packed in your luggage. There are also other statues you can order and some were very nice. I briefly considered a dragon with a five-foot wingspan and a substantially smaller rabbit, but passed on both. Outside the shop, Dave pretended to be a warrior and I found a real rabbit with which to commune.

We also toured a silk embroidery store and saw women doing the embroidery and the rug
Left: Starry Nights in silk
Right T to B: Cranes, woman embroidering
weaving. I was glad to watch the women at work and to hear about how the art was accomplished. It was an informative tour, but there wasn’t anything there I couldn’t live without – meaning there were no bunnies. Their products were also extraordinarily expensive, although lovely. Some of the embroidered pictures included the traditional cranes and carp, but others were reproductions of ‘old masters’ such as van Gogh’s Starry Nights.

The jade ‘factory’ was attention-grabbing, but I was disappointed at the workmanship on the carvings. The men do the carving and the designing; the women do the polishing
Top: Lunch
Bottom: Jade dragon
because they are more patient and pay more attention to detail – or at least that the story we got. Granted the carved rabbits were for the tourists, but still, for the price the workmanship wasn’t worth it; a three inch jade rabbit for $99 is a no. Dave asked about loose beads and they said they would take some off a necklace for me, but for $30 a bead, again, no. This factory is run by the state so I think this was a required stop. They did have good food and surprisingly a wedding party going on in one of the dining rooms. Evidently shops do more than one thing.

Shanghai Old Town Market was what I had anticipated shopping in China would be like. It
Top: Tea convention
Bottom: Working on watches
reminded me of the markets in Turkey. I did find the patches I wanted and I would have looked at a few more things, but the vendors were pushy and won’t let you just look. The government no longer allows open markets, but it does help small vendors secure a place to sell their ‘stuff’. We did find a tea convention with people talking about the benefits of this beverage and Dave was interested in what the men in an open booth were doing. They were working on watches and other pieces of jewelry.

Odds and ends:
Four and one-half carrots

Informational tours are one of the main reasons we go with an organized group and we expect to get our money’s worth out of them. Local guides were provided at each stop and
One of our wonderful local guides
they did a good job of educating us about a particular area. All spoke English well and were quite able to answer our questions or to expand on some particular bit of information. One very nice feature of the tours was our ‘whisper box’. This is a receiver with an earpiece that picks up what the guide is saying. You can be as far as about 100 feet away, with lots of people in-between and still hear all that is being said. Our personal guide (ours and the 18 other people in our group), John, provided more general and historical information as we rode in the bus. When he did lead tours, he was as meticulous and well informed about that particular area as he was about general history; his knowledge is exceptional. We also appreciated receiving a schedule each evening so that we knew what was happening the next day and at what times things would occur. Once we were on the ship, we were given even more written information along with a daily briefing about where we would be docking and what we could expect to find in the immediate area. This attention to detail and to making sure the tour groups know what is happening at all times is one of the elements that makes travel easy. As we found on a previous trip, Viking is a class act.

Four carrots

Flying around China is an efficient way to see places that you couldn’t get to in a timely
Left: In the airport
Right T to B: Getting ready to fly, Lunch
fashion. And while there may still be some out dated stereotypes of rather dilapidated planes servicing this country, there is no truth in that image. We flew on new, comfortable, planes with all of the safety gear we’ve come to expect, and with FREE food and beverages. The airports are also quite nice and offer all the amenities one would like including chilled water in dispensers that fill provided cups or your own water bottle.

Security is stringent. Everyone is patted down and everyone is ‘wanded’. However, there is a line only for women with female security guards; these ladies were polite, respectful, efficient, and quick. The other positions have both male and female security personnel and you are welcome to go through these gates, but the lines are slower because you have to wait for the guard who matches your gender. All of your electronics (mouse, camera, phone, tablet, e-reader, computer, etc.), including the cords, are required to be taken out of your bag to be scanned in a bin. I threw all my accessories, including my phone, into a giant plastic zip bag for scanning; it was quick, easy, and although the lines were long, we didn’t have much of a wait. Either security in China is better organized or the people going through the lines are, because it was much less of a hassle than it is in the States.

We were also pleasantly surprised by the way Viking handled our bags. For travel on our tour, these were picked up at the hotel by couriers and taken to the airport or to the ship. We were checked in to the flights by our guide who handed us our boarding passes; the bags had already been put on the flights. Once we got off the plane, the bags were brought to a special area where we identified them, checked for any damage, and then walked away. Whether it was another hotel or the ship, our bags were delivered to our rooms. This was an incredibly stress free way for us to deal with luggage. And what were we doing while all of the loading and unloading of bags was proceeding? Going on tours included in the cost of the trip, of course.
Entertainment by part of our Viking crew.

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