Thursday, October 21, 2010

My travel journal notes for my Siberia, Japan, and China trip

Here are my rough notes that I was emailing to my family and friends. As I edit them I will post a few of my best pictures here on my public Picasa web alblum - just look for recent photo albums with "2010" in the title. I did not make notes for the first week as we were going north west through the Aleutian Islands and into the Bering Sea.

Fun excursion: 1.25 hour drive Petropavlovsk to Indigenous village

We went way off the beaten track today, but had a lot of fun. Except for a lot of driving on very bad roads, most of the day was spent inside an Indian style lodge similar to what a large family would live in during the long winter. Entrance was a long very low tunnel. The lodge had a small hole in the ceiling directly above the fire pit.

Three women sang and danced inside the lodge, one spoke a little English and told stories and legends, etc. They also cooked us a meal that was pretty good.

I have some fantastic video of the singing and dancing (similar to Southwest Indians, but more complex, musically). I'll post a few of the video clips when I have a chance. Carol took video of me dancing, but that will be censored.

We are now steaming towards Japan

We have today and tomorrow at sea, then the next day we land in the port of Sendai. Countryside and temples, here we come!

As per the email I sent last night, Carol and I really enjoyed our "Indigenous people's village tour" yesterday. The roads were so very bad that they had to transfer us from a robust tour bus to an extremely robust mini-monster truck (huge wheels, 4-wheel drive) for the last few miles and even then getting to our destination was dicey. Carol just showed me some of the videos she took; using both of our videos, we should be able to put together a good presentation. We just used our digital cameras, but the sound and video quality is good. Carol just showed me a great video sequence from the mini-monster truck going down a very bad road with a large field of yellow wild flowers on our right. Right now she is editing a photo from our ship showing snow covered mountains/volcanoes surrounding the harbor we were in yesterday. Stay tuned for production-ready product :-)

Our tour guide yesterday was a little apologetic for the condition of their city, roads, etc. Definitely, not a lot of wealth to be seen (she said the ultra-rich people lived in guarded enclaves well outside of the city). Still, they have lots of natural resources and I think enough jobs - their life style may compare OK to non-rich people living in the USA in a few years.

We saw an amazing magic show last night, "Moscow Magic." The couple had been married for 30 years and their act together was very smooth and well executed. They have a 25 year old daughter who is a magician with the Moscow Circus.

Carol and I are hanging out in the library this morning at a stone table that is covered with semi-precious stones: reminds me of the inlaid semi-precious stones on the sides of the Taj Mahal. Carol is editing trip pictures and video on her laptop and I am getting ready to work on my current book project. I have only been spending about 90 minutes a day writing, but have been, I think, very productive. I'll say it again: if I were wealthy I would live and work on cruise ships about half the time.

bird rescue (?)

We are passing the far northern Japanese islands this morning, arriving in Sendai early tomorrow morning. It is getting warmer: we are now about the same latitude as Portland Oregon, so we have come far south compared to being in the Bering Sea. I was out on deck very early this morning at the very top of the ship in a short sleeve shirt, so it really is warming up (probably 40 degrees at 6am).

Most days we go to both a history lecture on the areas we are visiting (lecturer is awesome) and also listen to the naturalist on board. Yesterday the naturalist was telling us that large birds land on the ship and can not take off so it is a kindness to pick them up and toss them over the railing. Carol and I went outside on the Promenade deck last night at about 9pm and what do we see but a large bird (the wings looked like a frigate bird but the color was different) trying to take off. Now, these birds have these tiny stubby little legs and he was not getting any lift-off speed. I picked him up (heavy bird, lots of fat on his chest) and carried him to the railing but I could not bring myself to toss him overboard into the darkness. You guessed it: I handed him to Carol and she did the bird tossing. It was so dark that we have no idea if we saved him or tossed him to a watery death. I hope the former option. In any case, it was a thrill to hold such a large bird; as some of you know, I am more than a little fond of birds, and miss my ornery little parrot. We saw four more birds of the same species later in the evening and they too looked really scared to be stuck on deck. I picked up one of them, but Carol and I decided to not toss him, so I set him down near three other birds that were nearby. Early this morning, two of them were still on deck, hiding behind some lounge chairs. edit:It turns out these were water birds and I would have done them all a favor by spending 5 minutes tossing all of them back into the ocean. (This is what the naturalist told me a few days later when I talked with him at lunch time.)

We had a formal dinner last night and the ship's chief medical officer sat with us - interesting to hear about his life. edit: He joined us on two shore tours so we ended up getting to know him fairly well.

I am very excited about landing in Japan tomorrow. We have reservations on four awesome sounding shore excursions (one for each port in Japan we will be visiting). Carol has been taking many good pictures, and eventually we will organize an online photo and video album (our target date for this is February 2011 :-)

Sendai: first port in Japan

Yesterday was very special. I have always wanted to visit Japan and the tour yesterday was the perfect start.

We first went to a tourist area that is one of the most popular destinations for Japanese: a few hundred beautiful stony little islands with a few pine trees on each. Our view point was a three hundred year old tea house on a bluff.

Nearby, there was an ancient forest with a long formal entry, and the main gate framing the same islands. On one side were about a dozen meditation caves and on another an early Shogun's residence. All beautiful and interesting.

Our last stop was a Shinto Shrine on a small mountain, also looking out over the sea in the distance. Our guide was wonderful, with her spiel, giving me more information when I asked questions, and teaching us all the proper way to pray at Shinto Shrines (yes, I will probably convert :-)

A bit of a disappointment today: we were going to go on a self guided tour through caves and catacombs where Buddhist monks have over the centuries made carvings and pictures. Each person was to be given a candle, and they would send us in by ourselves. Anyway, the cruise tour lady on the ship warned people during a talk of claustrophobia problems, and so many people bailed on the tour that they cancelled it. I said how much I liked the your yesterday, so they are sending us on something similar today, but it will be in Yokohama (we should dock in about 1 hour).

Yokohama: 2nd port in Japan

Yokohama is very different than Sendai; Yokohama is a huge port, but well laid out and very clean. Even the water in the bay is clean. So far, all of Japan has been spotless and tidy.

We took a tour today to the ancient city of Kamakura, made capital of Japan by the Shogun in 1192. Our first stop was at a giant bronze Buddha: taller than you would believe. I went inside it also - sort of interesting.

We also spent time at a Shinto Shrine and walked through town. I bought two t-shirts, some Japanese cookies our guide recommended, and a hand painted bamboo bookmark. Carol and I also walked down several small alleys/walkways in the residential areas: odd because in the middle of the city, it was absolutely quiet.

After the tour, Carol and I had a late lunch on the ship, then spent the afternoon and early evening in a park near the ship that was a popular hangout spot for locals. We leave at 10:30pm for the port of Shimizu.

After dinner, the same music group that was performing in the morning on the pier was on board entertaining. They had a calligraphy artist doing "real time" huge drawings, interpreting the music. Then, with a translator, the calligraphy artist explained the nuances of what she was doing.

Shimizu: port 3 in Japan

We started the day going to one of the Japanese national treasures + places: the Nihondaira Park and Kunozan Toshogu Shrine. The shrine was in a very remote spot: had to take a 2000 foot cable car to get there. It was built for the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who was an early and especially powerful leader. I can't really describe the area and our pictures don't do it justice. There were beautiful buildings, very old cedar groves, the monument where his body has lain for 800 years, and hawks flying overhead. The breeze made the trees seem like a live animal around the shrine. Sitting there quietly has been the absolutely best time so far on this trip. The park also had an excellent museum of ancient Samarai armor and weapons.

After some more sight seeing, we had a fancy traditional Japanese lunch in a nice hotel - really strange stuff, but I ate everything. Watson traditions to uphold, and all of that.

In the afternoon, we saw something fairly much awesome: the small museum that has most of the existing work of the wood block artist Utagawa Hiroshige. He worked around 1830 to 1840 so this is not really old like most of what we have seen. You have seen his famous "Ocean Wave" wood block print, and the collection of his entire work was amazing.

It is worth noting that on all tours we have taken in Japan, the places we visited have had almost all Japanese tourists and a relatively small number of foreign tourists. The Japanese are very big on visiting their own places of interest. Easy to understand because of the beauty and general historic interest.

Kobe + Kyoto: 4th port in Japan

Carol and I are sad to be leaving Japan in an hour. We did a 10 hour tour today, leaving our ship in the port of Kobe and driving to the ancient capital city of Kyoto. I would like to come back to Japan and rent an apartment for a few months sometime when I am not consulting and just writing. Wonderful place, full of polite and very happy and contented looking people.

The first stop in Kyoto was the part time residence of the Shogun Yoshimitsu that was built in 1397. It was very dangerous being Shogun: enemies were often trying to assassinate the current Shogun. Yoshimitsu's residence had squeaky "nightingale" floors that creaked as we walked on them. A little noisy, but no sneaking up on anyone without a lot of effort. There were a series of rooms that were used for audiences with the Shogun, and the security setup was intense looking.

Calvin: our guide today was an old woman who seemed very knowledgeable about Ninjas. She said that they would hire themselves out to the highest bidder, either to protect the Shogun or assassinate him. She said that they were like the American CIA (not entirely sure what she meant by that). In Yoshimitsu's residence, he paid local Ninjas to masquerade as gardeners to spy on people approaching the residence and generally collect intelligence.

We then went to the Golden Pavilion, a Shinto park + shrine with lots of water, reflections, etc. Lunch was a buffet, and yes, I did eat some Kobe beef. Kyoto was an interesting place, and we spent the afternoon going to several more historic sites.

Two day tour to Beijing

Just a short note because I am tired. Carol and I just got back from a 35 hour trip to Beijing. We left the ship first thing yesterday morning for a 2 1/2 hour drive to Beijing. We had lunch and then headed for the Great Wall. One note: the weather was beautiful and sunny: blue skies except for a few scattered clouds. The Great Wall was most interesting because it gives some indication of the power of the Chinese emperors. We got extremely tired climbing the stairs on one segment of the Great Wall and you will see why when I send out some pictures.

After the Great Wall we moved on to the Ming Tombs in the hills outside of Beijing. This was an interesting lesson in how Feng Shui is done on a very large scale. We then went at dusk on what is called the 'sacred walk' where dead emperors were carried in a procession. Interesting because of large animal sculptures along the way.

We then had a painfully long drive through Beijing traffic to what is reputed to be the best duck restaurant in Beijing. I have no real knowledge if this claim is true but there were lots of pictures of famous people and politicians eating there. The food was tasty.

On the way to our hotel, the InterContinental, we passed the lit up Olympic sites for the swimming structure and the "Bird's Nest" - looked really cool from the bus, but when Carol and I walked back there at about 11pm, the lights were out. It was great taking a long nighttime walk in Beijing anyway.

Our hotel room was unbelievable, probably the nicest room I have ever had. Unfortunately, we had to meet for breakfast at 6:30am (full on Chinese food buffet with all kinds of strange stuff to eat) and get an early start to Tian'anmen Square: odd but interesting experience - people were in a 3 or 4 hour line to see Mao's tomb. We walked around and gawked. Don't underestimate the patriotic fervor in China: we saw it everywhere. Our guide talked about every person pulling together to help the economy. Single minded and to the point. Very scary, us being economic competitors. Also, I didn't mention before how beautifully splendid Beijing itself is. I know that there are poor areas in China, but Beijing was awesome and people just had a happy look about themselves living or working there.

We then went to the Forbidden City. I can not describe how huge this is because we covered such a tiny part of it. The open squares are immense and the imperial buildings, well, are big and imperial. Our guide told me that if a baby was born there and spent each night in a different room, then he would be 30 years old by the time that he slept in all major rooms. Our guide took us to the "Emperor's lovenest" (as he called it) area. The area where he lived with a dozen rooms nearby for his favorite concubines was small compared to the rest of the Forbidden City.

After lunch we went to the Temple of Heaven which was nice after the Forbidden City because the temple area only covered (about) 25 acres and did not numb the mind trying to contemplate the place. Everyone on the tour was happy enough to start the 2 1/2 hour drive back to the ship, after the second long day in a row.

We now have two days at sea before spending two days in Shanghai - looking forward to some down time and working on my current book project.

"Steaming" towards Shanghai

You might remember my previous email about "bird tossing." Sort of a followup: I was laying by the pool this morning doing some writing and I felt a little thump on my stomach. I looked down and there was a tiny canary-type bird that had landed on me. We looked at each other and it jumped down on the lounge chair right beside me. After a pause of a few seconds, it ran up my right pant leg, took a sharp right at my laptop, ran across my stomach, and flew away. Yesterday a similar bird flew right up beside Carol and I with a large moth in its mouth and last night we watched two of them bathing in a pool of fresh water (from the decks being washed down). Cheerful little birds.

Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft was the performer for last night. I saw her early yesterday morning while walking on deck and we talked briefly, but I didn't know then who she was. Her show last night was good and we just spent an hour listening to her answering people's questions in the lounge. Frank Sinatra was her godfather and a major influence in her life, and her best friend is Barry Manilow - she had some good stories.

We head up the Yangtze River at 1:30am tomorrow morning and from what I hear the captain will earn his salary. (Actually, he is charming, and has already earned his salary.) We fly home in 6 days and I am looking forward to getting back to real life.

Yahoo! Shanghai!

Patti: Happy Birthday!! I hope you had a great time in Hawaii.

We arrived in Shanghai early yesterday morning after about 3 hours of river navigation. We took the "Zhujiajiao Water Town" excursion that lasted all day yesterday. The water town was like a little Venice: lots of small bridges and very small sanpan boats to get around. Our ride on a little sanpan only lasted about 10 minutes but it was fun. Lots of narrow pedestrian only streets and we both bought a lot of inexpensive stuff in small shops. Later we had a mediocre lunch and visited a silk factory. I have some interesting video clips I took of the process of getting the silk threads off of the cocoons. Carol bought a beautiful green silk jacket; she is thrilled with it.

Last night we had dinner outside on the tail end of the ship and enjoyed the spectacular Shanghai skyline for several hours. Really nice. We had rack of lamb and a couple of chefs were cooking it up fresh nearby so it did not get cold coming all the up from the kitchen area. Since I didn't eat much lunch I also had a second entree of fresh mussels and two nice appetizer plates. As expected, food on the ship is fantastic, especially lots of high quality shasimi and sushi every lunch.

After the super-tidy futuristic feel of Beijing, I feel that we are now seeing more of the 'real China', except that Shanghai historically has such a strong western influence, and you see that in the 100 year old western style buildings. This morning we went into the city on our own and walked through the areas that we only drove through yesterday: the Bundt financial districts, lots, lots, lots of shopping, etc. I had a small cold yesterday, feeling better today, but I wanted to take it easy so after a while I gave Carol all of my Yuan money and I caught a bus back to the area where the ship is.

We now have two sea days starting tomorrow and then a long day in Hong Kong (two tours, totaling 10.5 hours, then we get up early the next morning and fly home). I am really looking forward to getting home - our normal life is pretty sweet, and this trip seems somewhat like a fantasy.

Hong Kong, and a Typhoon

Today has been a long but fun day. We woke up and looked out the window as we were entering Hong Kong bay. Beautiful city.

We took an 8 hour 'best of Hong Kong' tour and saw just about all the famous places. We started in the Bird Market where there were a zillion birds for sale and generally a lot of Chinese bird lovers hanging around. We then went through a food market that was super interesting, if a bit bloody, gory, etc. We then took a funicular to Victoria Peak and ate in a very good restaurant; Carol made sure that I got the seat at our large table right up next to a floor to ceiling window, looking down over Hong Kong - felt like I was dining on the edge of a cliff. We then went to the other side of the the Island to Aberdeen and took a sampan ride during which I shot a lot of video. We then went to Stanley Market, and then back to the ship.

We had a hurried but tasty dinner and then headed out for a 2+ hour nighttime harbor cruise that was a lot of fun also.

We just put our large bags outside our stateroom for the porters, and we are now going to get some sleep since we get up early to fly home tomorrow.

re: the Typhoon: the ship's captain has said that the cruise might have to be diverted, changing the itinerary. Our new ship-board friends who are on the full 69 day cruise (we just did the first 25 day segment) did not seem to mind a possible change of ports visited. Hopefully we will have no weather problems flying out tomorrow morning.

1 comment:

Joan & Sonny Trimpol said...

Mark,
Absolutely love your blog of the trip. Can't wait to see the pictures!We arrived home safe and sound and and are hoping to be back on "our" time soon.

Loved the trip and meeting you and Carol was a real bonus.We really enjoyed being with the two of you.
Joan & Sonny