Balloon to horse cart

Where was I? Where am I? As we drove from the Bagan airport after landing at about 8 AM we began to see temples and stupas.  Hollow pagodas with large Buddah statues are temples and solid stupas house Buddah artifacts.  The structures are as small as 10 feet high and as high as 60 meters some sitting on mountain tops many just jammed in side by side.  Even looking out of our room there are several in view.   The “Oh wow” factor had not faded even after almost two days.

Many of the more than 2,500 temples in Bagan have been reconstructed.  In the 11 th century the kings built over 5,000 in this area.  Kublah Kahn destroyed all the wooden structures and damaged many brick and stone structures.  An earthquake in 2006 damaged and destroyed many of those remaining. Kyaw (the closest I can come in English is Joe but sound “j” as ch and add a nasal “w”to the end) explains that Buddhists seeking merit in this life for their next turn on the wheel contribute large sums to restoring and beautifying the shrines. He is setting aside 10% (a familiar number) to do such a restoration himself.

Naturally we climbed the highest Pagoda to survey the countryside. We were assaulted by vendors at every turn;  “I make very good price” “you want postcard” “maybe later” with whatever goods being offered thrust into our face or hand. When we got to that first Pagoda we had it to ourselves, plus vendors,  for 10 minutes then the bike tours and busses began to arrive and the place was soon overrun and we worked our way down and out. We also visited the Golden Temple with its gold leaf dome and four grand entrance stairs passing through grand shrines from the four points of the compass. After lunch and a break we resumed touring with a temple with four huge Buddahs facing the cardinal points.  The two originals from the 11 th century have a unique facial aspect when view from where the high and mighty would stand or kneel they are serene but unsmiling. When viewed from further back, where ordinary folk would stand they offer a broad smile.  Draw your own conclusions. We finally stopped at a laquerware shop. Here we learned that this is a very different business than we saw in China. The bowls are made of bamboo or bamboo and horsehair and many coats of natural laquer, 24 in all, are applied with fingers to give the item strength and depth.  Adornment is done by engraving  filling with natural colors. We did buy a small momento. We concluded the touring day with a  boat ride on the Irawaddy River.  We stopped on a sandbar to view sunset which took place behind heavy clouds. We returned to the landing near our hotel,  the Aye Yar River View,  and the van took us to BBB for a Western dinner.

Today,  Friday,  we got up at 5 to catch our pickup for Balloons over Bagan.  By 6:15 we were airborne in one of 8 16 passenger balloons to drift over the temple area and catch the highest overview perspective available,  add some more oh wows! The hour flew by and soon we were landing in a cluster of balloons.  Indeed we were so close that one balloon envelope collided with another on the ground reducing speeding enough in the process to make a perfect landing.  Another had to leapfrog the landing zone and catch another with 2 other balloons. One other incident,  a passenger in our balloon fainted shortly after lift off,  her companions with guidance from the pilot revived her and we continued on without a hitch.  We returned to the hotel for breakfast and shortly took off for further touring in horse carts.  Carol was a bit under the weather so when I took the reins she complained about the speed and her seat in the back.  I gave up the drivers seat and the reins.  We made several stops finally shifting to the van for a final stop at a shop that harvests palm sap for sugar which is made into candy much like maple sugar and also encouraged to ferment and then distilled in the most primitive still I’ve ever seen.  The ferment is placed in a jug on a fire,  the jug has a side arm that has a metal deflector facing into it.  A large metal bowl filed with cool water is placed on top and the distillate collects on the bowl and drops onto the deflector which leads it out the side arm into a bottle.  It is surprisingly good given its lack of age.

We decided not to go out on the afternoon’s optional tour, museum,  village,  shopping and dinner did not appeal in any event.  While Carol slept I wrote the above and did some reading.  Late afternoon we both had head and shoulder massages.  Carol really perked up so after a while we headed out to dinner at a vegetarian restaurant called Moon that had been recommended by our balloon pilot,  Clive.  This involved walking off the pretty stone driveway of the hotel to the city road that leads up to it and hiring a horse cart for the round trip.  We had a bit of a wait while the driver harnessed his horse then a 10 minute ride to the restaurant also on a dirt road. The round trip cost $6.00 actually 6, 000 kyat (say chat). Dinner was a delight and the ride under a starry night sky with the top off the cart was very pleasant.

I am finishing this off in Mandalay at the Mandalay Hill Hotel.  I do love to write that name.  Mandalay for comparison, is a city of 7 million versus Bagan,  a cluster of villages home to about 100,000,


The British couldn’t pronounce Yangon so the spelt it how it sounded to them,  Rangoon.  Burmese People was too long as a translation of Myanmar so they changed the name to Burma.  And so it goes.  The “ugly Brits” preceded the ugly American by a century in making things sound their way.  Today we are struggling with the Burmese people’s pronounciation of English and we plan on doing so for the rest of the week. 

Everyone has a smile,  except for the immigration officer who snatched my passport out of my hand and practically threw it back at me after prolonged study. Traffic is insane.  They drive on the right,  sort of,  but most of the vehicles have right hand drive,  steering wheel on the right. We haven’t walked unescorted yet,  but I fear for my life and sanity when I try.  Private cars have only been permitted for a decade and no allowance had been made for parking much less highway space. Thus it seems half the cars are in continousl circulation looking for a parking place.  Everything moves a walking pace,  but at least the interior of our tour van is  air conditioned.

We started our tour from the airport with a visit to the Reclining Bhudda, I know we just saw one in Bangkok a couple of days ago,  this one is different,  much bigger,  68 meters head to toe. Also less gold and more colorful.  This one replaces an ugly predecessor that was neglected and destroyed by the environment.  Then we went shopping in the market,  one name of the market is Aun Saun Market. To much good stuff and a bit travel weary we bought nothing.  I do want a loungy, no idea how to spell it, it is a skirt like wrap worn by most Burmese men. It looks very comfortable for this climate and would make a nice table cloth when I decide not to wear it.

The meals have been wonderful.  Myanmar curries are quite varied and subtle in their shadings.  Many have strong spice heat with underlying flavor notes that ride over (under?) the heat. We took a meal off and had counter for in the restaurant lobby,  curried chicken stuffed in a pastry. Very nice.  Oh yes the hotel,  we are staying at the Chatrium, where Hilary stayed when she called on Myanmar as Secretary of State.  Obama is reported to have complained that on his visit here he didn’t stay long enough to use the hotel.  Looking out my window as I write I see the staff setting up the grounds around the pool deck and every place else for a wedding party of 900 guests!  It is hard to find anything to complain about.  The hotel is definitely at the top of the class of OAT hotels, the guide is wonderful even if this is his first OAT tour.  Having only four of us on the tour really is beyond expectation. Heddy and Carol (her name is Carol Ann) seem quit compatible and good travel companions.  We’ll know better tomorrow as it appears we need to be at the airport at 5 AM give or take. At least traffic should be light,  I hope.

We are watching the news from Ukraine where we started this extravaganza with some horror. Looking at the news from Bangkok, which we left 1 day ago, is scary,  especially since we need to go through there two more times,  in five days and again on December 31 on our way to the US.

Down time in Bangkok

Got off the plane in Bangkok alone,  just the two of us,  no for leader, no group,  oops, where is our hotel transfer? After some searching we located an OAT representative who got us a porter and a car to Pantip Suites in central Bangkok.  Note to Dan and Malena: that is Pantip not Pantop. When we walked into our suite I was sure they had made a mistake.  The livingroom/kitchen is about 30’x 20′ and the bedroom is about the same square footage. All of this on the 24th floor overlooking central Bangkok.  We have learned that this condo/hotel was built before the 2008 recession and our “room” was built as a condo.  Very nice quarters indeed especially since our next stop will include a stay in a tent. The rest of our group is two women due to arrive late today in time to leave for Myanmar/Burma on a 9 AM flight tomorrow necessitating leaving the hotel at 6 AM šŸ™

Our explorations have been a bit limited as we have other things to do.  Our first day we met Lucky,  our guide for the Thai portion of the trip and got oriented with map and coffee to what to do in Bangkok. That afternoon we set off by cab for the pier on the river where all boat tours seem to start.  We boarded a free shuttle to Aseatique, a recently developed shopping/entertainment/dining area in a former warehouse port area.  It also houses a very large Ferris wheel, much like the London Eye. We shopped,  bought a small suitcase to store our cold weather clothes here in Bangkok for pickup when we return on Dec 31 on our way to the states.  This will lighten our luggage enough to get us well under the 44 lb limit which we crossed as we left Russia. We rode the Ferris wheel,  we dined at Baan Khanitha right on the boardwalk, would recommend it to any visitor to the area. We took a tuktuk back to the hotel for an outrageous overcharge of 200 baht ($6.25) it only cost 72 baht to get there by cab, but that was daytime.

Sunday we loafed about in the morning before setting out for Jim Thompson’s villa. I won’t tell his entire story here. He was an adventurer who fell in love with Thailand in the 50’s and settled here and developed the silk industry. He was very successful, unmarried with no children when at age 61, while visiting a friend in the country he went out for a short  walk and was never seen or heard from again. His collections of local art and artifacts have been retained in the original villa and are a must see. The shops, both at the villa and nearby are wonderful.

After some time at the hotel to relax, we set out for the Night Market, not far from the villa. This was very interesting. Not wanting to walk to the train after dark we took a cab from tne hotel to Silom Rd near the intersection of Patpong where the market is. We stopped in at the Jim Thompson store and enjoyed looking at many things we don’t really need. Then we start walking toward the market, a side trip down a brighly lit street found us surrounded by “girls” many in uniform outfits that barely covered. This long block was a major redlight district and we beat feet back to Silom once we realized where we were. We found our way to Patapong and began to check out the merchandise,  it was lower quality than Aseatique but much higher than Siem Reap.  We were looking to the side of the road for a restaurant and noted that there were  many sex shows here too. Every other doorway gave a clear view of scantily clad pole dancers. Ignoring this to the extent possible we settled on TipTop Restaurant which offered a reasonable menu with an understanding of the needs for vegetarian! Carol produced her note that says in Thai that she eats no meat, fish, chicken and the hostess made it clear she understood. After a bit more walking we engaged a cab for 200 baht to take us back to the hotel.

Walking in Bangkok: traffic here drives on the left, remember to look right before stepping into the street, look left too as a motorbike could be coming from most anyplace, what rules? The sidewalk on many of the streets around our hotel are narrow, nonexistent even. Most are single file, there is no curb, and powerpoles and other sign posts force you into the street. We have learned to walk on the right facing traffic, at least you can see the motorbike that is using the walkway to pass a car! To cross the street step out with hand firmly extended toward oncoming traffic, they will adjust their speed and position to miss you, most of the time, be prepared to alter course if they don’t. So far we are unwilling to do this after dark.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Yet another place we’ve read about,  seen news about and never quite dared to dream of visiting.  Yet another killing field,  this one marked with the bones of many of the deceased in a stupa for all to see. This is a country where we never quite knew who were the good guys and who the bad.  Prince Sihanuk seemed to be unable to decide either and in his desire to stay neutral he caused as much misery as he wanted to prevent. Khimer Rouge v the government forces.  Pol Pot v everyone.  As we repeatedly learned,  independence is only 15 years old.  People are killed and maimed by leftover land mines every day.  Unexploded munitions are rusting in farmers fields waiting for inadvertent contact to ruin another life. On the streets of Siem Reap the more visible hazard is traffic gone wild.  There are five traffic lights in the city and drivers consider them a recommendation not a requirement.  Stop signs seem to be totally ignored.  The approved method for entering traffic flow is to keep moving assuming there will be an opening when you get there.  It seems to work, mostly. Traffic is a mix of tour busses and vans,  motor bikes in the 100 cc range and tuk tuks – a motor bike with a hitch in the middle of the seat pulling a cart.  The cart can be for passengers or for cargo.  At least traffic generally flows and distances are minimal compared to China.  Our hotel is in walking distance of central Siem Reap and only about 5 kilometers to Angkor Wat, the main tourist attraction. 

I suppose I could regale with details about the sites we’ve seen from Angkor Wat to the “ladies temple” and several more temples including the one where Tomb Raiders was shot with trees draped over the walls. Maybe I’ll get back to that.  We have experienced a couple of new modes of transport including a long ride in a long tail boat on Ton Le sap,  the largest freshwater Lake in Asia and a ride in a cart drawn by water buffalo. The cart is as what one would imagine with no suspension and the track was not smoothed for us.  Since we were sitting on mats in the carts,  we were all grateful when we reached the end of the ride.

Food varieties became another significant adventure.  On the day we visited Angkor Wat, we went in the morning which is not the best time for photography since this temple faces West unlike all other temples and the view was into the sun.  The reason for doing this was to face smaller crowd. It worked, the crowds were large but manageable.  Later in the day as sunset approached, we returned to see the facade lit by the setting sun.  Seong, our tour leader arranged snacks and drinks for us.  The Cambodian wine, called Wrestler,  was not great but at a fortified 20% alcohol I was able to drink some of it.  The snacks included silk worms, snake jerky and waterbuffalo jerky as well as frog legs. I tried it all to Carol’s distaste.  That was just the beginning as it turned out.  The next day,  today as I write,  we stopped along the road to Ton Le Sap to sample deep fried crickets,  grasshoppers,  and rice frogs (maybe we had the silkworms today not yesterday). Once we got on the lake John, the other guy in our touring foursome, continued to pester Seong about findng him a live snake. At the floating village, we indeed found a live water snake and Seong handed it to John.  A bit later Seong escorted us to a table and served us a lovely soup with water snake in it.  Carol absented herself while the rest of us tucked in and tried it. The skin was too tough to eat so we peeled it off and sucked the meat off the spine. It wasn’t bad,  but I won’t go looking for it either. Although we leave Cambodia in the morning,  I am sure we will have more surprises as we go to Thailand,  Myanmar and Vietnam through the month of December.

Leaving China

Since I last wrote we have toured Potala Palace and Jokan Temple and flown to  Chongqing, maybe the largest  city in the world with population over 33 million stretching for miles (kilometers) along the Yangtze River. This is where we bordered our river boat MV Victoria Lliana for three days and over 640 kilometers of down river passage through the 3 gorges and passed the 3 Gorges Dam through  the 5 step shiplock. Our entire group had chosen the Executive Deck and given the light passenger load we had the Executive Deck dining room to ourselves. We were served by Sunshine and Rainbow who learned our names almost immediately. We were greeted and served our preferences without having to ask. Talk about about spoiled.  Note to anyone thinking about this trip, DO NOT miss it and do not take passage on the lower decks. The Chinese do not understand the term “No Smoking”.  The water may be 150 meters up, but the gorges are still massive and very deep. I cannot even imagine what they must have been before the dam.  The lower section we traveled was very rough before the dam and today it is serene sailing.  We considered  both sides of the argument for the construction of the dam and while we understand the negative ecological impact of the flooding, we also see the immense benefit of the dam for hydropower, flood  control, and irrigation. We concluded the trip on the river just below the dam and faced a 5 hour bus ride to get to Wuhan where we stayed overnight before catching a plane to Hong Kong.

Out from behind the firewall!  The phrase “one country, two systems” takes on new meaning upon entering Hong Hong. While it is not truly western,  it certainly has a feel of freedom. Not the least it is seen  in what is available online; Facebook, Google,  NYTimes, and all my blogging and RV Forums are now live. It is seen in billboards, and peoples faces. Even more are the crowds! Yesterday as we walked about within long walking distance of our hotel to several market areas we seemed to receive the full body massage no matter where we turned. This is not a place for those who do not like crowds.  Think Times Square on New Years Eve, or in Rochester, the Cornhill Festival on a perfect weather day.

Sunday had us out and about again. This time we ventured by bus to Stanley Beach/Market/Plaza. We arrived mid morning to find the crowd starting to build.  By lunch time, when we had split off from the group we arrived with, the crowds had continued to grow, with seemingly every family that had a child descending on the place. We enjoyed touring and shopping and had a delightful lunch at a place called Classified . Then we found our way back to the bus terminal and boarded a bus back into town. Not being familiar with the stops on the way  back, we stayed on one stop too far.  Once we got oriented we enjoyed the 15 minute walk back to the hotel.

Tonight is our fairwell dinner and four of us will continue on to Siem Reap,  the capital of Cambodia in the early afternoon.

High Times in Lhasa

We have been looking forward to this portion of the trip with excitement and trepidation. Tibet was a closed region until maybe 20 years ago.  Even today access for non Tibetans can be problematic.  Tibet had a brief period of independence in the 20th century that ended with the “peaceful resolution” in 1951. Leading up to that period it was a part of territory governed by China.  I will not delve too deeply into the politics here as I want to be able to leave.

We landed Friday morning and crawled off the plane at about 12,000 feet. Upon reaching our hotel we realized that nothing and no place is heated.  It was a brisk 48 F or so both outdoors and in our hotel rooms.  After some messing around with undocumented controls we got the radiant heat in the floors turned on.  Do you have any idea how long it takes to warm a room from ambient to 72 F with a warm floor?  We went to lunch, slowly. Fortunately no one in the group has come down with serious altitude sickness.  All of us are operating on 50% of normal energy.  Climbing steps is a chore. Carol and I slept for 9 hours Friday night.

Today we visited a private home where we sampled local snacks.  We started with yak butter tea and went on to yak cheese.  I actually enjoyed the tea even though it was Bay and strong flavored.  I won’t go out of my way to have it again. The cheese is also known to tourists as month cheese because it takes that long to chew.  On from there to the Lhasa Museum, you knew that was coming.  Lots of steps to the main entrance and many more to get to the primary exhibit. It provides a good over view of Tibet history just a little colored.  We wrapped up with lunch and then five of us took an optional tour to Sera Monastery and PaPunga Monastery.

The former is huge with a history going back to 1410. It’s peak population of monks was 50,000. It was decimated in the Cultural Revolution and now houses about 500. We witnessed what they call debates where students are grilled on their morning learning in a very formalized way.  The questioner uses a series of motions and claps to tell the student how he is doing in the exchange.  The debate is conducted in an ancient Tibetan language that is not used outside the Monastery.  This entailed many steps.

The next Monastery is very small with a current population of 25. It dates back to 7th Century and is where the current Tibetan alphabet was developed.  It consists of 30 characters and 4 vowels written above the line.  Some characters may be stacked below the line.  The Monastery is on a small cave with bare standing room in the front room.  The back room was so low Carol could not stand.  The view back to Lhasa was grand and the Potala Palace stood out clearly although a storm had dimmed the view. The last thing we saw there was the sky burial site.  I choose not to go into all the details, suffice it to say that vultures play a role.

At Potala Palace we expect to face as many steps as on the Great Wall.  I will turn in soon to prepare. The delay in posting is caused by my inability to publish using Blogger.  I suspect the enhanced firewall implemented for Tibet may have scientific to do with it.

Xi’an to Chengdu

This is mostly about tourism highlights. Xi’an is where one goes to see the Terracotta Army created by the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.  Once again it is impossible to do this massive enterprise justice with a handheld camera.  Pit one, containing mostly foot soldiers extends over 300 meters and half that side to side.  The estimate is that there are over 6000 individual soldiers in all. Each with a different face and each with appropriate armament for location in the order of battle and for his class.  Most have been broken by rebels,  tomb robbers, and nature by earthquake.  The second pit had archers and other high ranking soldiers. Many fewer have been restored,  but several horses and remains of chariots can be seen.  Pit 3 contains General officers and their body guards, also 4 horses.

While in Xi’an another couple joined Carol and me to take an evening walk to see a water show next to the Large Wild Goose Pagoda (as apposed to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda which we also toured). We got there early enough to find a reasonable viewing spot and fended off incursion by locals who proceeded to venture out between the fountain jets to photograph and be photographed. For a nation of so many who have lived under regimentation for so many years they do not seem to accept that any regulation applies to them.

On to Chengdu.  The main reason for visiting this medium sized city of 14,000,000 is to see pandas. See them we did.  The Chengdu Panda Reserve is a glorious zoological park devoted to breeding and rearing pandas.  It also is a major tourist draw.  We have not seen any other American tourists since leaving Beijing in part I suspect because it is past the peak tourist season.  There are plenty of Asians wherever we go, many Chinese and certainly Japanese as well.  It was great to see many pandas of all ages playing, eating and sleeping at every turn.  There also is a group of Red Pandas, actually more closely related to raccoon than to Giant Pandas.

I skipped over our home stay in Dong Han. We drove out of Xi’an about 50 kilometers to a farm village that has been redeveloped in recent years with most of the farmers moving into brand new homes in a new village adjacent to the old and very near their fields.  The 11 of us were divided up to go to the different homes.  Our hostess was Tsin Ting. Her home had two spare bedrooms and a separate bath on the 2nd floor to accommodate OAT stays. There are 70 homes in the village that are approved by some government entity to host visitors and they rotate the honor and presumably the extra money. Carol helped in the kitchen, which was semi detached from the main house by an enclosed breezeway.  She learned a new pastry rolling technique as well. After dinner we all met the village women in the square for dancing, this is their nightly exercise. Carol danced every Chinese dance and the Hokey Pokey and was complimented by the women.  After breakfast we toured an artist’s studio, the village is well known for the farmer artists.  During the Cultural Revolution several artists were sent to this village for reeducation and they educated some farmers in return.

These are a hardy people.  The temperature was in the low 60’s and their doors stood open and windows too.  The only heat we saw was an electric blanket and a heat pump which we turned on as we entered the bedroom.  Set to 78 (26 C) it kept the chill off. Our hostess did not seem to notice the cool, nor did the other villagers.  The dance exercise was outdoors and everything else was too. Other than the slabs in the rail car these were the hardest beds yet.  The Chinese like hard beds as every hotel bed is at least as hard as any futon I’ve ever sat on.
Key questions we raised were who works the farms and who owns the land and buildings.  The villagers working through their representatives in the village government hire workers who own heavy farming equipment to work the fields.  They also agree on whether to plant corn or wheat.  They then go about whatever other work they may choose to do. Some drive cabs,  some are artists and some teach. The farm land belongs to the farmers and they can pass it on to their family.  If the village decides to make other use of the land they will be compensated for its loss.  The land under their houses is given to them for their use to build a house. They pay  construction themselves and they get to select from 5 designs for exterior and floor plan and they design the interior decor.
There have been many amusing translations on signs and we have collected some of them.  In the airport I saw a sign that said “FIRE ALARM  VICE STATION” Needless to say I had to ask Michael what that meant, where is the vice?  His response has left me giggling, “oh like vice president.” Clearly English is a confusing language when one word can have such different meanings and we don’t even notice. 

Shanghai, at last

A quick update.  Our flight from Moscow took off at 3PM, only 4 hours 40 minutes late without so much as a “we’re sorry” until we landed at 3:15 AM. Other than that the flight was very nice,  the food was plentiful and good and the indoor of the plane was on great need of updating.  The video entertainment was a three pound tablet with a smaller screen than my tablet and no place to rest it in a viable position.  It went directly into the storage pocket only to be sent at the end of the flight. Reading and sleeping torrent with eating condoned the time quite well.

We were dropped at the hotel by city guide Andy at 5 AM or so and found our way to our room where we slept until 9:30 awakening in time to rush to the dining room and grab some breakfast before they cleared the buffet away. After meeting our Tour Leader, Michael, (they all seem to have Americanized names for leading American groups) we set out to walk to Nanking (or maybe Nanjing) road which is very long long pedestrian shopping street. We spent our afternoon walking and window shopping.  We wondered off onto a side Street where we found a local restaurant where we ordered too much for lunch.  I decided not to have one of the bullfrog dishes.  May after some time here that may not put me of my feed,  but I’m not there yet.

We dined at the hotel restaurant restaurant,  once we found it.  A trip to the 2nd floor brought us to the Leningrad Bar. I decided me must have been pushed through a time warp as the main offering was vodka and the snacks were Russian dishes,  also the primary section of the menu as written in Cyrillic! 

This morning,  Saturday I think,  we met or new group and spent the day touring.  The highlight was the Shanghai Museum where the 2 hours of alloted time was enough for one of the 4 floors and a run through of the others the special exhibit of French Impressionists was not available  to us and the lines for those with tickets were hours long.  Dinner with the group in an hour.  Now I must truck on down to the lobby to use the wifi to get this out.

Catching Up

It seems that most of my apps for writing require an internet connection for writing. I have lost what I wrote since Shanghai to lousy internet connections. I will try to recapture my impressions here. This may be a longish post as I cover 4 days in and around Shanghai and a like amount in Beijing. I will start with some general thoughts about China and the Chinese. Much of our experience has been noted by many other travelers from the West. China is crowded. Shanghai has 23 million resident population and Beijing 33 million. Everything feels crowded and compressed. The people seem extremely rude as their sense of personal space is much closer than ours. They take jostling against each other as normal. For an example on our visit to the Forbidden City as we tried to get a view of the throne in the first pavillion rather than queuing and filing past they jammed the stairs and platform and the only way to get near was to be pushy. Carol felt threatened by the scrum and backed out. I got to the front and experience a full body massage, my pictures are useless as everytime I got something in the viewfinder I was shoved aside or someone pushed in front of me.

Traffic is beyond belief. LA Freeways at their worst are mild in comparison. Any trip could be from 1 to 3 hours and the mix of cars, busses and 2 and 3 wheelers of all sizes  going in all directions makes trying to make sense of the flow bizarre. Walking across a marked intersection with the light is dangerous as bicycles, peddled, gas powered, electric powered pay no attention to lights and cars turn right on red without even slowing down. John, the English name of our Beijing guide, advised that we cross like sticky rice, in a tight clump that would intimidate riders who are inclined to thread through a loose group rather than give ground to anyone. It worked mostly, no one got hit, but it was close several times.

In Shanghai we saw much of what is on the tourist menu starting with the Shanghai Museum.  We walked the Bund, the Whampoa River front, both with the group and on our own after dark. We walked  Nanjing Pedestrian Road which is a mile long shopping strip with every high end shop you can imagine, plus KFC, McDonald’s,  and Subway.  We ate at a couple of local restaurants that we selected on our own and successfully shopped in a drug store for masks against the smog. Haven’t opened the package yet, but the air has been dreadful most every morning. We visited two areas in the Shanghai area, Zhu Jia Jiao and Suzhou which was 40 minutes on the Bullet Train which reached 298 kph according to the onboard screen. In both towns we had boat rides, visited markets and toured gardens. These gardens are actually homes built around elaborate gardens featuring water, wood, stone and buildings. The higher the status of the owner the more elaborate the garden. On our last day in Shanghai we toured a very high status garden that was 18 years in development in 1557. After lunch in a private home we flew to Beijing.

We did what is required in Beijing. We toured Tiananmen  Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.  The Forbidden City, being the Emperor’s home contains the second most fantastic garden we have seen, the Summer Palace takes credit for being the most fantastic with its 758 meter long  corridor and the Marble Boat. Except for the Great Wall these were all as expected from other traveler’s reports and photos. We were concerned that the attack in Tiananmen Square would prevent our visit, but everything was cleaned up as if nothing had happened 24 hours later. Our visit to the Great Wall was incredible. We went to a section that is seldom visited by tour groups as it is 15 kilometers further and in a much poorer state of repair not to mention that it is not the most famous photo op that everyone takes. We were the only group on the wall and there were only a dozen or so others we saw whole time we were there. Our entire group climbed onto the wall and then ascended 700 uneven steps to the high point in the area. Michael, our tour leader, has lead many groups and was surprised that everyone  made the entire climb, we range in age from 61 to 78, and the eldest does not seem to be in any kind of shape,  but he made it, just more slowly than the rest of us. We have toured enough factories, silk, carpet, and jade tomorrow to make me wish for a tour of an electronics factory. The working conditions we have observed leave a lot to be desired.  I did buy a silk shirt.

We have attended an acrobat show and a made for tourists Chinese opera.  The latter was after visiting the opera school where 10 year olds to 19 year olds learn the craft while also getting a academic education.  Travel in Beijing culminated with an overnight train ride to  Xi’An whwere the highlight will be the Terracotta Army. We saw some magnificent szmples of them at the Xi’an Museum this afternoon.  The train ride was an experience I do not need to repeat. We were in first class cabins with four bunks, OAT had bought all four for each couple. We had less room than in the motorhome bedroom, the tracks were not smooth and the car  rattled. There was one western style toilet for the car and three sinks in one separate cabin. I slept fairly well, Carol didn’t.

To get current, we had Mongolian hot pot dinner tonight and for of us took Michael up on his offer to see the sound, light and water show on the grounds of the Large Wild Goose Pagoda. We walked over from our hotel and saw a 30 minute show. The fountains were great the lights were okay and the music was strange to say the least.  Along with some Chinese numbers they played William Tell Overture,  selections from Carmen and other Western music.  Glad we went,  glad to be back on the hotel room with good wifi for two nights. I cannot begin to guess what future nights will bring.