Southeast Asia

Alan and Lila Letow

 

Introduction

Lila and I had talked about visiting Southeast Asia for many years and we had a trip planned a year ago, but at the last minute we were not able to make that trip.   I can’t say that it was a big disappointment as it was right after September 11th, 2001 and everyone was quite shaken by the events of the attacks.   But this trip was different in that we visited many more countries and cities in Southeast Asia, and for part of the trip we did from a cruise ship, in addition to the land trip within China.   Our trip consisted of thirteen days touring China, sixteen days of cruising in the South China Sea with varied port visits and finally, three days in Bangkok, Thailand before we returned home.   

            Well, as our departure date approached our anxiety increased with respect to leaving the family, getting everything ready and all the standard routine that is necessary when you are away for a month.  I had been preparing to leave for this trip for so long that I felt that I was ready to come home before I even departed.   As we got underway (that sounds very Navy) the anxiety weaned as we began to focus on the twenty-four hours of commuting that included a fourteen hour flight from Chicago to Beijing, China.... yes, that is what I said...a fourteen hour flight.   We have had plane trips that long before to Australia and New Zealand, but seating in one place for that long is daunting to say the least...maybe I should have done some of my Yoga poses...the crew would have loved that routine.    

            Now we are back home...after three very long flights from Bangkok, taking thirty hours from the time we awoke at 3:00 am to leave to the time we arrived home at 9:00 pm the same day (crossing the international date line certainly extends the day).  Fighting a twelve-hour time difference and trying to get through the mail, email, bills, and reacquainting ourselves with our household chores is getting old.  And in addition, just realizing that when we throw the towel on the floor, there is no one to pick it up after we leave or that when we sit down to eat there is no one coming over to take our order, is in itself difficult to cope with.   

            Putting away the clothes and items we packed for this trip ...of which I only used twenty-five percent.... is an awesome task.   The clothes seemed to have just gotten larger during the trip ...must have stretched from too many deserts maybe.   Adjusting back to one’s routine after being away for so long is certainly going to take time and patience.  The other issue that Lila and I had to deal with was that we were not in direct contact with the family since the time difference made using the telephone more difficult and the cost was somewhat prohibitive.   Certainly, email has become an essential part of communicating with friends and family giving us a sense that we can be reached, if needed. 

            As I write about our experiences and observations I will utilize hyperlinks to expand on specific subject areas so as not to include detail in the basic article that may not be of interest to the general audience.  The reader can “click” on highlighted phrases to read additional material as it may interest them.

Beijing, China

            Our flight over to China was uneventful and on schedule.   Our Chinese tour representative greeted us as we completed our entry process into China and with four other arriving guests we boarded a small van.  Our collective suitcases and carryon bags were stuffed in the back of the van…and our journey into this foreign land began.  The first observation that I had was the people…there were lots of them, crowded roads and many large buildings lining our way into town.   They were not necessarily stylish buildings…just many of them.  And throughout the country, if a building has nine floors or less…there is no elevator.   This is great if you are on the first floor, but consider carrying your bags and yourself to the ninth floor ...that would be a matter of great consequence.  Generally, The older people get the opportunity to select apartments on the lower floors.   

            The images of many people is not just seen in the number of buildings…it is everywhere.  Bicycles are a major source of transportation not only in the rural areas but in the city as well.   Bicycles probably provide a more rapid form of transportation than cars, when one considers the traffic jams that seem prevalent all over the city.  The primary fear that I had in China was just crossing the street or the road…it seemed that there was an endless line of bicycles, motorbikes, cars, taxis, and trucks always coming from some direction to where ever I was standing….and they were moving fast.    

            We arrived at the Kempinski Hotel, a five-star hotel with impressive credentials…obviously a Western hotel for tourists, not for locals.  We had all the services of a first rate hotel at our disposal...a business center, CNN on the television, excellent restaurants, fitness center…obviously we had not seen China yet.   We had arrived earlier than required for our tour to make sure that we were in Beijing on time and also to help get adjusted to the time difference ...the time difference being a full thirteen hours ahead.   We, therefore, had a free day, so we grabbed a cab for a short hop to downtown Beijing.  Our initial intention was to visit the “Silk Market”, one of many such markets where you can obtain “quality” goods at a mere fraction of what one would pay here in our country. 

            But to my utter amazement, located just down the block from the market was a Starbucks coffee shop…I was lost, but now I had been found.   I immediately purchased and enjoyed a familiar cup of coffee in a strange new place.  In fact, this turned out to be one of four Starbucks coffee shops that I encountered in different cities in Southeast Asia during the trip and everyone was crowded…hurry out and buy Starbuck’s stock.  But we did not come half way around the world to just drink coffee…we came to shop; so off to the market we went.  In the Silk market you can buy any name brand product…well sort of a facsimile of any name brand.   Mont Blanc pens for $2.00, North Face jackets for $9.00, luggage for $20.00, Prada handbags for $15.00, Rolex watches for $5.00, etc.  But more on shopping in just a moment...the practice and art of shopping deserves more discussion because it is such a major element in the culture of this part of the world. 

            Beijing is the capital of China and is the centerpiece of a history that goes back for centuries, but it also played a prominent role more recently, for example during the massacre in Tiananmen Square.  There has been a succession of dynasties in China dating back centuries and they help explain the existence of the current government ...the Communist dynasty.  Without trying to explain this history... for example there was the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) the first great dynasty; the Tang Dynasty (618AD-907AD) most prosperous and cosmopolitan, Buddhism arrives;  the Ming Dynasty (1368AD-1644AD) Confucius teachings are embraced during this period; and the Qing Dynasty (1644AD-1912AD) the last dynasty...but was it the last.   

            China's history is very revealing and has laid the foundation for China’s present and future.  Whether China can surmount many of the problems it now faces is unknown or even if the Communist Party in China can revolutionize itself sufficiently to permit the growth of a capitalistic economy and put its vast population to work.      

            So what is Beijing really like...with a population of thirteen million people it is a city with numerous attractive buildings and historic sites that reflect upon the country’s long history.  There is probably some industry in and around the city, but I did not see any signs of factories or large businesses.   We did see houses or rather apartments near the downtown area especially near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.   People generally do not live in houses within the city....they live in smaller apartment buildings and those that are old are being torn down and replaced by high rises to make better utilization of the land. 

            In Beijing we visited Tiananmen Square, which is surrounded by some of China’s official buildings, including Mao’s tomb, and learned about the student political demonstrations in 1989 that resulted in the Army (mostly soldiers from villages in remote provinces) shooting and killing many of the students.  For quite awhile the soldiers were held back and the students believed that they would be permitted to express their feelings which were widely supported by people around Beijing, but then the government reacted as it was afraid of the “counter revolution” that was emerging.   

            Across the road from Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City, the seat of government during the era of the ancient dynasties.  Having 999 rooms, in its day the Forbidden City accommodated about 10,000 people...the Emperor, 3.000 concubines (How do you like those odds?), eunuchs (needed them to help around the house and leave the concubines alone), soldiers, family and guests.  After five years the concubines were free to leave (Do you think they were worn out?) and the eunuchs who were eager for this cushy assignment often “partially” made the necessary changes so they would be acceptable to the Emperor.    

            We also visited the Great Wall of China...and a great wall it was.   Built during the Qin Dynasty (221BC-207BC) by separate kingdoms it was intended to keep out marauding nomads.  Hundreds of thousands of workers took over ten years to build the wall that ultimately stretched 3,600 miles, but it really never performed the function for which it was built.  During the Ming Dynasty an effort was made to enlarge the project and work on the wall continued for 100 years...I do not believe it was career enhancing.   

            I was not feeling well the day we went to the Great Wall and could not climb the wall, but I did have the opportunity to get up on the wall via a cable car.   The wall, crowded with hordes of visitors walking six or seven abreast as it snaked for miles over the landscape, is an enormously commanding picture.  Worn away over the years by the environment, sections were restored and improved for visitors in 1957.  I had really wanted to climb the wall and was quite disappointed when I was not well enough to conquer that particular conquest of mine.

             We also made visits to the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven while in Beijing.  Of course, we took advantage of more visits to the local markets in order to hone our shopping skills.  Restaurants are many in Beijing as they cater to diplomats, business travelers and people, such as ourselves, who are on holiday visits.  In general, we ate in tourist type restaurants, where the food was not too dissimilar from what we experience at home in Chinese restaurants.  Initially, I was somewhat troubled by that fact ...not being able to eat what the locals eat ...but then I was cautioned that I would probably not like the types of meals that are normally eaten by the Chinese.  

 

The Great Wall

The Forbidden City

Xian, China

            Our visit to Beijing consisted of a two days when we first arrived in country and then again for another two day stay after we had visited other cities within China and before boarding the Regal Princess, our home in the South China Sea for sixteen days.   After our first stay in Beijing, we left for Xian, the ancient capital, located in the province of Shanxi.  After a one and half hour flight from Beijing, we visited the Terra Cotta warrior exhibit.   Built in the third century to protect the Emperor’s Tomb of the Qin Dynasty, the vault contains 7,000 life size clay warriors grouped by rank and placed in battle order.  It took 40 years to complete the project.   Strategically placed, some were on horses, some in chariots and others on foot.  These warriors were there to protect the Emperor’s tomb, but after the Emperor’s tomb was built, there was a peasant uprising and the Terra Cotta soldiers were set on fire and the statues broken.  Lost to history, they were discovered more recently in 1974 by a farmer digging a well and since then the excavation has been a painstakingly slow project.   

            While in Xian we also toured the 600 hundred year old city wall (a circumference of eight miles around the city), a provincial museum and a Jade factory.  We got suckered...oops, we purchased jade statues and had the pleasure of hauling them for the rest of the trip....not too bright.  Today, Xian has a population of almost seven million people and hosts about forty universities...an impressive number.  We also went to the Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist temple built in honor of the Emperor’s mother during the Tang Dynasty.   I climbed the 274 steps to the top to get a beautiful view of the bus that brought us to this temple. 

 

Terra Cotta Soldiers

Wild Goose Pagoda

Chongqing, China

            Finishing up our visit to Xian, we had a one hour flight to Chongqing, just inside the province of Sichuan.  Our tour representative was very conscientious in making sure that we visited every possible tourist site in Xian that day (I cannot tell you how pleased I was that we did not miss a trip to a temple or a museum.), so our flight to Chongqing left Xian at 8:40pm and we finally reached the ship at about 10:30pm....could not ask for a better schedule.  Chongqing, located on the Yangtze River, was the place where we boarded our boat, the Victoria #3, to take us on our cruise down the river to Wuhan.    

            The greater metropolitan area of Chongqing has a population of around thirty-one million people.  This may not seem like a lot of people, but it is in fact equal to the total population of Canada.   It is just another indication of how many people live in China, as well as along the Yangtze River.  It seems that almost every village we would pass seemed to have a million people or more.  A million people here and a million people there and pretty soon you are talking about one significant number of people.    

            Anyway, at 10:30pm we had the opportunity to walk down two hundred stone steps with our carryon bags in hand...all by the light of the moon...then down along a dirt path across a pontoon bridge with no railings until we boarded our ship.  And they say travel is not exciting.   We were soon issued cabin keys, our checked bags arrive (I hate to think that they traveled the same route to reach the ship on the backs of Chinese porters carrying two at a time) and we try to get into the (very small) cabin ...bags and all.  We finally settle down and relax...the bathroom is real special ...well efficient, anyway.  For while you are on the throne you can shower, brush your teeth and do whatever else that may be necessary or comes to mind. 

Yangtze River

            The ship left the dock ...well the pontoon bridge, I guess, in early morning to begin our transit down the Yangtze River.   It is an amazing river in that one out of every ten people in the world (or 1/3 of the Chinese people) lives adjacent to the Yangtze River.  There is a massive amount of traffic constantly moving on the river ...boats carrying every conceivable type of raw material and other goods ...moving up and down the river.  It is so busy that at places where the river becomes too narrow, there is a one way movement of boats to avoid the possibility of collision.  The river water appears brown, flows with a swift current and the air ...it is a thick haze... pollution.   Spending these four days on the Yangtze, while going through the many gorges in this polluted environment has no doubt reduced my life expectancy by minutes. 

            The first day on the river we stopped in Fengdu to visit Ghost City.  We are told that the local population believes that the city is populated with ghosts ...could it be just another tourist trap?...but Lila and I take a chair lift up to Ghost City to visit the temple and to learn more about this local folklore.   What is interesting about Fengdu is that it is only one of many villages that will be flooded when the Three Gorges Dam is finally completed and so it has to be moved to higher ground.  To do this the town is being taken apart ...the buildings disassembled board by board, brick by brick, shingle by shingle, etc. and the city is rebuilt at another location.   It is an astonishing site to see ....thousands  of laborers working by hand to disassemble a town or village and move it.  In the United States, we would simply bulldoze the whole town and move it to a dump site and then start with new materials....but not in China. 

During our trip, the Victoria #3 transits through three gorges along the Yangtze River and the scenery is spectacular only diminished by the deep haze that always seems to hang over the entire area.  If, however, anyone would like a detailed discussion of the three gorges, please do not hesitate to contact me and I will review the half page of notes that I have and prepare three or four pages of descriptive material describing the gorges.  On our second day on the river, we went for a five hour Sampan ride on the Daning River which feeds into the Yangtze River.  The scenery was especially beautiful and reminiscent of silk screen pictures depicting the many peaks of the surrounding mountains dissolving into a soft haze.   

            To get from the Victoria #3 to the road, where the buses waited to take us to the sampans, we had to walkup a long and difficult hill!   For many, this was a difficult climb not unlike any of the other transits from and to the Yangtze cruise boat. But help was there in the form of “sedan chairs” for those who wanted the very best.   For a price of 100 Yuan (approx.  $12.00), one could ride the sedan chair, powered by two Chinese men to the top of the hill.  For Eddie, one of the men in our group, the transit was too much for the Chinese carriers and half way up the hill they could not go on any further...or at least not until Eddie promised them another 100 Yuan.  

 

Yangtze River Gorge

Sedan Chairs

 

          After traveling forty kilometers (or 24 miles) up the Daning river for three plus hours, our sampan pulled onto a rocky ledge deep in a remote area...quite picturesque and we, a group of maybe twenty seven people were now alone on this narrow rock filled beach...Oh, no we are not alone ...there are three vendors carrying little items for sale at one or two dollars each.   How could they even know we would be there? ...what a pleasant surprise!!!  It turned out very well because our box lunch from hell provided for the sampan ride was filled with goodies that I could not imagine wanting to eat and these vendors cheerily accepted whatever we were willing to relinquish.   

We chose to not eat or drink during this outing as no one wanted to be the first to frequent the hole in the “bathroom floor” on the sampan.   In fact, as the trip progressed everyone had even less of a desire to enter that “restroom” facility.   And as always on our transits to and from the Victoria #3, there were the ever present street ...oops, path vendors aggressively selling everything that we did want to buy on the sampan or at the rock beach area.   

            An interesting fact is that a sixty-two mile plank walkway about one hundred feet up from the water surface had been constructed along the mountain walls lining the Daning River back in the 3rd Century, during the Han Dynasty.  In fact, it was an amazing feat for it’s time ...even for the present period.   The holes that held the planks still line the walls of the cliffs along the river.   It really was great experience to see a bit of China that little others get an opportunity to experience.   

            The trip to the mouth of the Daning River for the sampan ride took us through the town of Fengjie, which like so many other towns along the Yangtze River, is being dismantled and moved across the river to higher ground before the Yangtze is flooded.  It was simple incredible to see how life and commerce continued in this town amid the rubble, while it is being taken apart piece by piece.   Dirty, dusty...the people frequent those still operating shops, while food and other goods hang ready for sale in the open air shop.  Over one and one-half million people are being displaced and moved to higher locations by the Three Gorges Dam Project.   Back on the Victoria #3, we continue our cruise southward. 

            The ship stops for the night in the town of Zegui, where we see a folklore show and get a chance to buy some local crafts.   In the morning, I climbed up to a ridge and walked for about a mile through a little, extremely poor rural village that was also being dismantled.   This is the other picture of China...a world apart from the progress and urbanity we see in Beijing and Shanghai.  But as we continue our travel down the river, the Yangtze River remains brown, filled with silt and the haze seriously masking the layers of mountain peaks that are fading into the landscape. 

            By the way, I did not mention the food on the Victoria #3...well; we had three Chinese meals a day all served family style on a lazy susan table top.  So there, I mentioned the meals ...I like Chinese food, so I found the meals pleasant, but after two weeks of Chinese food three times a day...give me a pizza, already.  That third afternoon we arrive in Maoping as it is the end of our Yangtze River cruise.  We did not make it to Wuhan, because the Three Gorges Dam got in the way and we will have to bus the rest of the distance.   

            The Three Gorges Dam (TGD) is an amazing feat of engineering and a nation’s determination.  It is a project that dates back to the 1930s, when the US helped pick that site for the dam, but did not really get underway until the 1990s.  The project will be completed in 2009.

 

Yangtze River Scene

Three Gorges Dam Model

Wuhan, China      

The next day, quite early...it is my birthday...we leave by bus for Wuhan.  The four hour ride to Wuhan took six hours (not the four hours the tour representative told us it would be) and it gave us the opportunities to stop a couple of times to shop (and to use the restrooms), but along the way, we had a chance to see rice paddies, fish ponds with carp and water buffalo.   Wuhan, a city of eight million people, is an industrial city along the Yangtze River as it heads for Shanghai.   After a traditional Chinese tourist lunch, we visited the Hubei Provincial Museum devoted to the relics unearthed from the tomb of Marquis Yi of the state of Zeng who died in 433BC.   I will just bet that you are all sorry that you missed the opportunity to see this wonderful and interesting museum.   

I did my walk through the museum and then decided to head out on my own, while the others deep in study remained at the museum.  Well, it was my birthday and I decided to see Wuhan on my own.   My personal tour took me to a technology college (there are over forty universities in Wuhan), where I decided to walk onto the campus even though there was a guard present.   Needless to say he immediately came out of his booth to greet me and maybe even to wish me a Happy Birthday.  But the language barrier prohibited us from conversing fully and he forbid me from walking any further, so I did an about face and headed back to the museum to those who really cared for me....Lila.     

The tour guide had plans for more tourist visits in Wuhan, but six hours in a bus and the fabulous museum visit was all that I could bear...so I confronted the guide and tried to start a mutiny ...I told him that I wanted to go directly to the hotel.  Well, he succumbed to my charms and to the hotel we went...except what the tour representatives were covering up was that they did not really know where our luggage was as it was traveling separately by truck.  It was my birthday and I wanted to change into my birthday suit, but to no avail the luggage did not arrive until 9:00pm and it needed to be back outside our door at 10:00pm for an early departure the next day back to Beijing. 

Beijing, China

            I have already talked about the Beijing experience during our initial arrival into the country and when we returned from Wuhan.  Not wanting to repeat our adventures in this city our land excursion within China was coming to an end and from here we were being bussed to the port city of Xingang about a two and one-half hour ride.  Quite eager to move on to this new segment of our journey we anxiously looked for the Regal Princess on the horizon as we approached Xingang, but it was difficult to see anything as we could not see through the haze.   

But soon the outline of the ship appeared almost before us as a mirage rising from below and as the bus crossed a bridge, slowly the ship slipped back into the haze falling away behind us.   The tour representatives nervously talked by phone and then the buses turned around in the middle of a main street amid all the traffic and again the ship came into view.  We made the first turn after again crossing the bridge and went through a very dusty, dirty neighborhood until the street ...well, it went no further.   Once again our buses turned around and after a few adjustments, we headed one final time to our destination...the Regal Princess. 

            Tracking our way through the maze to collect our shipboard documents and surrendering our passports, we finally boarded the ship and found our cabin.   Home at last!   When we compared notes after dinner later that night with those who had accompanied us on the two weeks in China, we found that almost everyone had eaten a Prime Rib dinner and Caesar salad.   Contented we began a new chapter of our trip.

 

 

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