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Antofagasta, Chile

Hola gente. Aunque pone que escribo desde Antofagasta, ya me encuentro en Barcelona. Solo que no voy a cambiar la ruta de Noemi en el mapa. Y ademas, mi corazon sigue por alli. Primero porque esta Noemi, segundo porque es imposible dejar el viaje asi de pronto, tercero porque amo chile y despus porque alli se encuentra nuestra amiga Paula y su familia. Gracias por acogernos en tu casa.
Yo empece la universidad hace tres dias, espero acabar este año yaaa, y mañana ya me reincorporo al trabajo en Iberia. Solo quiero deciros una cosa, pronto, creo que muy pronto, emprenderemos otro viaje.
Quiero daros las gracias a todos los que nos habeis seguido durante este viaje por estar a nuestro lado, a toda la gente que hemos conocido, con los que hemos compartido cenas, buceos, atardeceres. Gracias a Sandra y Edgar por acompañarnos durante unos dias por Tahilandia. A la familia por haber tenido paciencia. A Paula por acogernos en su casa. Gracias a todos aquellos que nos hicisteis pasar buenos momentos, a los que nos ayudaron, a Berta y Jaume por no dejar que Noemi se fuera sin comer comida Hindu (mejor los conejitos), a chuspy por haber estado casi siempre, a Campos, al payaso Arcas y a sus hijas por seguirnos en nuestras aventuras con la fauna autoctona de los paises, a mis hermanas que han ido explicando algunas cosas a mi madre para tranquilizarla. Agradecer a Oscar que apareciese en el ultimo momento. Quiero agradecer al universo la posibilidad de haber cumplido mi sueño de viajar, ya sabeis aquello de que cuando una cosa la deseas con todas tus fuerzas el universo se conjura para que la cumplas.
Quiero dar las gracias, las mas especiales de todas a Noemi, por haber sido capaz de seguirme, de confiar en mi, de hacer realidad el sueño de viajar sin saber lo que pasaria al dia siguiente. No puedo prometerte un camino llano, mis sueños estan llenos de curvas, de desiertos, de selvas, de rios y mares y oceanos, de pequeñas islas, de poquitos museos y moeumentos. Al fin y al cabo, mis sueños son mi vida. Gracias Noemi por haberme acompañado. Sabes que te espero en casa. Lo que no puedo prometerte es que cuado regreses no esten preparadas las mochilas por si te apetece seguir pasando frio, o calor, o durmiendo con chinches japonesas o cucarachitas vietnamitas. O mejor poder desayunar en bonitas playas o almorzar en Antofa o cenar en Kao San.

Ya sabeis, apuntad a la luna. Aunque falleis siempre aterrizareis en alguna estrella. Y si optais por seguir en la tierra y os encontrais con una encrucijada, no volvais atras, coged la encrucijada.

Un abrazo y un beso a todos vosotros, gracias de verdad.

permalink written by  Noemi y Carlos on September 17, 2008 from Antofagasta, Chile
from the travel blog: NUESTRO VIAJE POR ASIA Y ALGO MAS...
tagged Asia

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Arriving Singapore's Airport: Changi

Singapore, Singapore

It was my fist visit in Singapore Changi Airport. This happened last 2001. I hardly had time to visit the tourist destination in Singapore that time. That was because I also had to rush to Johannesburg within 24hours time.

But just when I arrived at the airport, I was really amazed by the cleanliness of the airport. Coming from a third-world country (so they say)---like Philippines, the cleanliness of Singapore was really something to be surprised of. The airport was like a mall; that time I remembered the airport of Philippines was not yet renovated give the comfort and the convenience like that of being in a mall.

That was my impression---and it lasts. Actually from that experiece, I vowed to return to Singapore. And I did just last 2006 of January. I really had a great vacation there with my wife.

I will post some photos for the next entry that I will make on Singapore.

permalink written by  testblog on November 3, 2008 from Singapore, Singapore
from the travel blog: Singapore
tagged Singapore, Asia, CleanCountry, CleanCity and TouristDestinationInAsia

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This where we start...

Prague, Czech Republic

So, here we go. We are leaving our home town ...well, not home town for all of us, for some it is just the city where they currently live :) ...anway, we are heading for Munich to catch our firs plane on this trip. All of us in one small car...let's hope we get there ok.

permalink written by  Janicka on March 24, 2009 from Prague, Czech Republic
from the travel blog: Vietnam + Cambodia March 2009
tagged Vacation and Asia

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Kathmandu, Nepal

These articles detail my research, and experience tracking the politics and gemstones of Kathmandu and Nepal.

permalink written by  SalForTruth on July 3, 2009 from Kathmandu, Nepal
from the travel blog: Nepal
tagged Asia, Kathmandu, Nepal, Politics, Pokhra, Bandipur, Annapurna, Chitwan, Tharu and Maoist

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Meaux, France

I have been travel many of countries.Asian and Europe too .also i get some experience with diferent cultures and peoples too.i would like to shere with that all my memories with you...
sumith Dias

permalink written by  sumith on July 24, 2009 from Meaux, France
from the travel blog: Lisbon
tagged Travel, Europe, Asia, World, Sumith and Dias

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Day 1: The Flight from New York to Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Day 1: Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Flight to Beijing, China

Our Asia Adventure begins! Hunter and I are taking another “trip of a lifetime” to round out 2009. It was a pretty last minute trip, planned just a few months prior ,when we realized we had the time and money this year to make a trip to Asia a reality. We always wanted to see that part of the world, because it is so different from the US and Europe, and after discovering a Princess Cruise that toured six Asian countries over the winter holidays, we knew we found a way to realize this vacation goal!

We are booked on a 17-day / 16-night Southeast Asia Explorer cruise on Princess Cruise line that departs December 18th from Shanghai, China and makes the following stops: Okinawa, Japan; Taipei, Taiwan; Hong Kong (overnight stay/2 days); Hue, Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Singapore; Ko Samui, Thailand (beaches); Bangkok, Thailand. Disembarkation is in Bangkok. Hunter and I added on an extra 5 days in China so we could visit the Great Wall, because after all, what is a trip to China if you don't see one of the great wonders of the world? And so we are flying to Beijing for 3 ½ days before flying to Shanghai for 2 days before boarding the cruise.

I did extensive planning for this trip, over the weekends in October and November, as there are 10 cities to plan. We wanted to minimize the number of Princess-led excursions to save money and see more, and so I researched transportation and key sights to see in every port. TripAdvisor.com and CruiseCritic.com were extremely helpful for their message boards. Someone on TripAdvisor even looked up Taipei train schedules for me!

Packing was very difficult for this trip, as we need clothes for 30 degrees (Beijing/Great Wall) and for 91 degree weather (Thailand). We somehow managed to get all of our formal cruise wear and winter and summer clothes into one 22-in roller board, one 28-in duffel bag, and one 28-in Samsonite suitcase, plus two carry-ons, one of which is a giant beach bag and holds the video camera inside.

Hunter and I decided to get some immunizations pre-trip and met with the Passport Health Center in Virginia Beach to see what we needed. We got the first dose of Hepatitis A vaccine, a Polio booster vaccine, and a DPT which was overdue (every 10 years). We also got the seasonal flu vaccine the first weekend in October and I was one of the lucky ones to get a H1N1 vaccine.

I think I covered enough of the pre-trip details, so let the adventure begin!
Our 12pm flight from EWR was scheduled as on time and when we arrived at the gate, we saw a VERY long line. We assumed it was for people without seat assignments as they made an announcement that the flight was oversold by 7-8 seats and they were looking for bumping volunteers for a $800 travel voucher and a confirmed seat out on the one Continental flight tomorrow. Definitely not! We need all the time we have in Beijing! The crew started boarding us around 11:30am for our 12:15pm departure and we got to board early because of Hunter's status. We took up most of the overhead bin space and lamented at our tight seat quarters. I later put my carry-on bag in the overhead bin so we could have more leg room. Continental only gave us a pillow and blanket and free headphones – no sleeping mask or booty slippers or earplugs AND they charged for alcohol!!! I thought alcohol was free on international flights!

Our flight started off on a rocky start as I was looking for the outlet that I had seen on SeatFinder.com as Hunter really wanted to plug in his netbook. I couldn't find it on the armrests and so I pushed into a panel on the wall, thinking maybe they were up in there, by the seat lights. I was wrong! When I pulled on a section of the panel, out popped all three oxygen masks! I couldn't get them to retract up, so the flight attendant had to call maintenance to come out and fix it. It was a tense 5 min as Hunter and I watched, hoping he could fix the paneling so we wouldn't get booted off the plane or delayed. Luckily, he did fix it, but that wasn't the end to our problems.

The plane pushed off at 12:20pm from the gate as a full flight. Hunter and I were one aisle behind the bulk head and I had the middle seat. About five minutes into taxiing on the runway, the pilot announced that we had to go back to the gate as one of the passengers who gave up his seat still had checked luggage on the plane. It was supposed to take 20 min to pull the bags from cargo, but that turned into almost a 2 hour delay. Then the pilot came on and said that there was a passenger on board with a connecting flight in China that would be missed and this person didn't have a Chinese visa to stay in the country and needed to be re-booked on another flight. The crew then asked if others were in that situation, and luckily no one was. After a 2 hour 15 min delay, we were taxiing back onto the runway and up in the air. At least they let us cut the runway line!

There were 3 stewards for our section of the economy class cabin, and 3 for the back section. One handed us a menu pretty quickly:
Dinner: Salad w/ 3 cocktail shrimp and lite ranch dressing, choice of Beef Stir-Fry or Pollack fish with rice and bok choy, a cookies and cream brownie and a dinner roll.
Mid-flight snack: Pulled BBQ pork sandwich and a haagan-daaz vanilla ice cream cup
Pre-Arrival snack: Fruit salad, roll and a choice of a swiss cheese omelet/turkey sausage and potato gratin or Shanghai Noodles (dim sum) w/ pork and veggie potstickers. Both came with an almond cookie.

Hunter and I continued to read our magazines for a half hour before starting one of the 350 movies offered on individual consoles. However, only a few were “New releases” but there were three we wanted to see: Transformers 2, 500 days of Summer, and Up. There was also Julie & Julia and My Sister's Keeper. Surprisingly we only had time for one movie! After reading, we turned on Transformers, paused it during dinner, and then finished it up before bed. Hunter and I were each going to have a different meal, but the steward mistakenly gave us both the fish. But it was pretty good.

Towards the end of the movie, we each took two Tylenol PM tablets and then used the restroom before bed. Hunter fell right to sleep but I tossed and turned for an hour and a half before finally getting up and buying 2 bottles of red wine. I had asked the steward during one of his hourly water runs, but he forgot to come back, so I had to walk to the back of the cabin to get it. Once I guzzled a whole bottle and turned on the Classical music albums, I fell asleep. I slept a good 2 hours straight before being woken up for the mid-flight snack, and then I had another half bottle of wine and fell back to sleep for a straight 4 hours. It was then time for breakfast. I wasn't too hungry and ate the potato part of the omelet while Hunter ate his whole dim-sum. After eating, we whipped out our netbooks for the first time – we didn't even need the outlet which the attendant had pointed out was on the bottom of the seat, near the floor! Hunter did some programming while I typed this journal entry.

The steward handed out immigration forms to complete, along with a health questionnaire. We completed those and then read our magazines while the plane descended. We arrived 1 ½ hours late, which wasn't too terrible. The pilot said he had permission to increase the speed. The flight was 13 hours long and because we slept over 7 hours, it actually passed quickly! However, overall I was not impressed with Continental's seats or quality of service and would not recommend it for international travel. But our tickets were free (120,000 miles each) and it was a direct flight eastward over the north pole (Greenland, Russia and Mongolia) so I can't complain too much!

(Continue to next travel blog for Day 2 - arrival and first evening in Beijing)

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 12, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Beijing and Asia

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Day 2: Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Day 2: Sunday, December 13, 2009

Flight to Beijing, China

Our first impression of China was the flight's descent through the thick smog. We had heard there was a lot of pollution in China (and had seen it on the Olympics TV coverage) but had forgotten it was something we needed to prepare for. There was a thick white haze that blocked the sun and cast a pallor over the ground. We flew right through it and landed.

Our luggage took a little while to come but we easily found the taxi station and waited in line (outside) for a taxi. We handed the driver the direction page from the Courtyard Beijing Marriott's website and he nodded that he knew where he was going. There was a lot of traffic at this hour (we were in the taxi by 6:15pm) and it took exactly an hour to get into the 2nd ring, the heart of the city. We passed Tiananmen Square and several giant shopping malls, one right after the other. The driver got lost and couldn't find the hotel, but we were at loss for further directions and just kept giving him the paper and showing him the attached map I had printed with the directions. Luckily, the taxi driver figured out the hotel was behind the main street, down a small side street and got us there safely. I messed up the fare and didn't leave him a tip because I thought it was total 87 Yuan, and I gave him a 100 Yuan bill, but there was an extra 10 Yuan in tolls, so the poor guy didn't get a tip.

We checked into the hotel and was told in broken English that we were upgraded to a premium room because of our platinum status. We were also told about the free continental breakfast for platinum members, which could be found on the 16th floor or 2nd floor in the restaurant. None of the staff spoke very good English, but we could understand the gist of what they were saying, and we were able to get many of our questions answered as well. The room was a good size with two double beds, a sitting area, a decent size bathroom and a table vanity.

As it was getting late at this point, we decided to skip Wanfanguli Street, which was on our itinerary and just to go across the street to the huge New World Shopping Center to have a look around and maybe find something to eat. We actually could enter the mall from the 2nd floor of our hotel, and after a detour (being led by a staff member into the restaurant because she thought I was asking her where to eat), we entered the first store. It was a general clothes type store but without the traditional walls and sections of a department store and then it opened up into the giant mall, where store upon store was just next to each other, without defined walls. It was VERY weird and extremely overwhelming for our first day and being tired from the flight. We just kind of wandered aimlessly, not knowing where we were going or what direction we came from, but we found the food court which was all traditional Chinese food, and decided not to risk eating there. We found our way outside the building (somehow!) and walked into the McDonalds (which was near the only other 2 American eateries – Starbucks and Haagan Daas), but we couldn't figure out how to order just a simple hamburger from the menu (we could only point to a combo meal), so we decided to just eat in the hotel instead. The restaurant was still open at 8:45pm and we had Chinese food – braised beef and rice and veggies for me and Hunter tried a Thai chili dish. It was satisfying but we were shocked a small bottle of Evian cost $6. We had previously stopped at the concierge lounge and got two larger water bottles, but the attendant had to unlock a cabinet for us, so we expected that we would be billed for it (we weren't and so we could have had all the free water we wanted!).

After dinner we headed right to bed, but unfortunately didn't sleep too well. We were up at 2am and then 4am and 5am and then dozed until 7am. I think we had slept too long on the flight – it wasn't jet lag, just too much sleep!

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 13, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Beijing and Asia

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Day 3: Beijing, China - City Exploration

Beijing, China

Day 3: Monday, December 14th, 2009

Beijing, China

We got out of bed at 7am and Hunter discovered he had a full blown head cold so we started him on one of the many medicines that we packed in our travel pharmacy! We showered and dressed in the warmest clothes we brought, complete with thermal underwear. We enjoyed a nice continental breakfast of pastries, some weird looking egg thing, juices and coffee from a fancy machine I didn't know how to use until the attendant showed me. We filled up and watched the China TV news channel that was on. For each of the three mornings we were there, no more than 2 other tables were occupied with other guests. There were a lot of Chinese guests in the hotel, so maybe there were only a few platinum Marriott members – those who we saw were foreign businessmen.

Our first stop after breakfast was Tiananmen Square. We took a taxi from the hotel for 10 Yuan (the flat rate for short distances) and got dropped off across the street. It took us a while to figure out where we were in relation to the square and had to ask a policeman near a posted map who just pointed across the street to us. We were all bundled up in scarves and gloves and hats and took pictures in front of Mao's mausoleum, which was closed on Monday. We skipped the legislative building and the museum which lined the square and just walked through to the other end and took pictures. The light poles in the square were covered in security cameras pointing in every direction. I think every square inch of the Square was under surveillance! We took a picture in front of Mao's picture and then made our way under the underpass to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was huge and we rented two audio guides to give us the necessary background. It was a good decision as we would not have known what we were looking at. We stopped at the Clocks Exhibition which was very interesting and we were there for the 11am clock demonstration – thanks to my thorough advanced planning! Every attraction in Beijing was outdoors so by the end of the Forbidden City we were used to the cold weather and walking far distances! We spent a good two hours in the Forbidden City and then took another underpass across the street to Jin San Park where we climbed to Wachting Pavillon to get a view of Beijing and the Forbidden City. It was well worth the very steep climb to see the sprawling city, although it was masked by a thick smog. The city looks like the size of three Manhattans as it just keeps going and going in every direction! Taking in the sight of Beijing from such a height was probably the highlight of our day.

Leaving the park, it was our intention to take a taxi to the Drum and Bell Towers, which we saw in the distance, but we couldn't find a taxi that would run the meter (I had been forewarned on Trip Adviser) and didn't want to pay the outrageous prices for a taxi (50 Yuan) which should have run no more than 10 Yuan. We were accosted by many different rickshaw operators but they didn't look warm or safe and we rushed past them. I almost got pushed over by a beggar and didn't like this touristy area at all! We decided to walk a full 20 min to a subway line that would take us to the next tourist spot. Surprisingly it was very easy to navigate as the ticket booth was in English and we could find the stop we wanted on one of the 7 color-coded subway line. The best part was each one-way trip was only 2 Yuan per person! We decided to skip the Drum and Bell Tower and go straight to the Lama Temple, the largest lamastary in the city. Getting off the subway, we stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to eat peanut butter crackers and drink our water before continuing. There was a park bench nearby but we saw someone spit directly on it and decided not to sit down!

The Lama temple was interesting but the audio guide wasn't working that well (it didn’t start in some areas of the temples) and so we just walked around watching locals and tourists burn incense and bow in front of the many Buddhas. There were some quite interesting Buddahs! Large ones, mostly painted in gold, with weird animated faces. Some statues looked almost cartoonish but I'm sure they were very important to one of the three religions that were represented in the lamastary. We were in time to see a Buddhist prayer ceremony inside one of the main temples, and that was very interesting. Probably about 20 different monks sat with their legs folded, chanting from their prayer books in unison. We were afraid to try to take pictures as there were guards in the corner, but a lot of tourists stood to the side, watching the monks. After the temple, we took the metro to the stop near the Wanfungshin section, which we had skipped the night before. We were very tired at this point, and it was getting very cold as the sun went down, so we didn't make it very far up the street. We went into one of the large connecting shopping malls which now seemed very navigable. We passed several Dairy Queen stands inside and a shop selling convenience items like waters and chocolates. At probably the fifth section – our fifth mall – we stopped for about a good half hour and checked email on our iPod Touch and wrote our first email to our family to let them know we arrived safely (there was a free WiFi signal in the shopping mall).

We ate dinner at 5pm at the Outback Steakhouse which was adjacent to the Beijing Hotel at the beginning of Wanfungshin. It was delicious to enjoy a nice American hamburger and french fries after such a limited meal this morning and all the walking we did! It was reasonably priced, but probably expensive for local standards – bottled water was the equivalent of $3 and each hamburger was $10. The bathroom finally had sit-down toilets, so the place worked for me! We had to hassle with a few taxi drivers outside of Wanfungshin before we could find one that would take us back to the hotel and we paid double the price (20 Yuan) although that wasn't too bad considering some drivers wanted 40 or 50 Yuan. We quickly dropped off our stuff and then took a taxi to the Kung Fu Show, although it took a few hotel staff members to find out where the place was and to be able to have them direct the taxi driver there.

We were dropped off across the street from the theater, where our tour guide for tomorrow - “Fortunate Jack” - met us to purchase our tickets. We had agreed to buy them through him instead of through an online discount ticket place because we thought it would be good to meet him before our big tour day and the difference was only 10 Yuan per person. He was very friendly – a tall young guy -- and he even walked us inside the place to show us to our seats. We said goodbye and then had a good 20 mins to wait before the show started promptly at 7:30pm. Hunter and I were trying very hard not to fall asleep as we were exhausted from such a busy day and our colds were kicking in. The show was good – it wasn't very action oriented, but there were little kids doing amazing somersaults on their bald heads which was fascinating. The music was good and the narration was all in English, so it was pretty tourist friendly. We are glad we went. Jack got us great seats – he had convinced me to upgrade to the 190 RMB seats because they were in the center and for most of the show, no one sat within 3 rows of us so we had absolutely no obstruction of the stage.

The show was 90 min long and we rushed right out of there at 9pm and were turned away by the waiting taxis who wanted 50 Yuan to take us back to the hotel. I refused to pay that price and although Hunter was worried it would be hard to find a taxi, we walked down the street and were able to flag down a passing taxi in the street who just started the meter and drove to the hotel. However, he thought we pointed to the Pearl Market address that was listed on the hotel direction card and drove us there. We then pointed to the hotel address but the taxi wouldn't move further and kept pointing to the market. Hunter remembered where the Pearl Market was in relation to the hotel (just down the road) and so he gestured to the driver to keep going. The driver was confused but kept driving down the road at our insistence, and Hunter kept repeating “The Sho-Show” which was the name of a huge building near the shopping center next to our hotel and we hoped the driver would know it. (We assumed it was a giant movie theater, but later learned from Jack that it was a big local Chinese-only market, so the driver actually knew of it and was able to take us there). We paid the driver and then walked through the mall, into our hotel. We only made one wrong turn this time to get into the Marriott – we are finding our way slowly! We crashed in bed after taking some cold medicine.

A few thoughts from today: today was much less overwhelming than yesterday once we got the hang of the underpasses and realized the maps were useless because they were all in Chinese and not to scale. We still think there are WAY too many enormous shopping malls here. Most are high end international brands in the malls. We haven't yet braved the low end markets as it requires a LOT of bargaining skills and we're already tired of haggling the taxi drivers to make sure they don't rip us off. But I am relentless and refuse to pay more than a few Yuan over meter price! There are reminder signs to boil the water in the tea kettle they give you in the hotel room before using it to brush your teeth but we were afraid that the boiling wouldn't kill all the bacteria so we used lots of bottled water.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 14, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Beijing and Asia

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Day 4: Beijing, China & the Great Wall

Beijing, China

Day 4: Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Beijing, China: The Mutianyu Great Wall and Summer Palace

Today was a GREAT day at the GREAT wall of China! We met Jack, our guide, and the driver at 8:30am and fought the Beijing rush hour traffic on our way to Mutianyu, the latest built section of the wall. It took 2 hours door to door to get there, but the ride passed quickly as we talked to Jack about life in China. Jack is our age - 28 yrs old - and is officially his own business after branching off from an established tour company a few years ago. He told us about the escalating real estate prices and the booming Chinese economy and how ridiculously wealthy some people are in China. There are luxury stores everywhere - as an example, tonight we ate in a fancy roast duck restaurant that was in a giant mall that had a Lamborgini store and a Mercedes Benz showroom, in addition to Gucci and Burberry and international designers. Jack told us about the school system, health care system, the 2008 Olympics, and various Chinese holidays. He was one of the very few students at university that did NOT study computers or math or science and instead majored in English. Jack spoke very good English but he was conscious of making mistakes with the tenses, which he said was because Mandarin only uses one tense and one pronoun (always "he", never a "she", "you" or "we"). Jack has an advanced vocabulary for someone who could go weeks without speaking English during the tourist off-season. He was a true delight!

The Great Wall was really impressive. It was amazing to stand on something with that much history and to imagine Chinese warriors fighting off Mongolian forces with their bows and arrows over the 500 meter high wall. The scenery was beautiful - lots of tall mountains with only a few patches of snow and ice remnants. It was a very clear day and we could see for miles out on each end. The base of Mutianyu was very cold but it was much warmer on top of the Wall as the sun beat down on us. We walked from tower 6 to tower 14 and climbed hundreds of stairs - this section of the wall was basically all up hill. I joked that the Great Wall of China is the original stairmaster! We took a gondola up from the base to a low section of the wall and then hiked up and then retraced our steps back. Instead of taking the gondola back down, we braved the downhill toboggan ride -- sitting on a plastic sled that raced down a winding metal track. It looked really scary but was a lot of fun! Hunter raced down and finished a good 2 min ahead of me as he was going full speed. I was more cautious (we didn't get helmets) and more slowly took the winding turns.

After the 2 hours on the Great Wall, we stopped in the village at a factory -- more like a series of rundown shacks -- where locals were making beautiful hand-painted ceramics with gold plated copper wire inlets. It was beautiful and we bought some souvenirs after watching the whole process from beginning to end. We did this while our guide and driver ate lunch as we snacked on crackers and breakfast pastries (the Chinese have very good bakeries and I have a chocolate croissant every morning!)

On the way back to the city, we swung by the Olympic village and got some great shots of the Bird's Nest and Water Cube where Michael Phelps set all those world records. Our last stop was then the Summer Palace of the Emperor. It had just been repainted so it looked much more impressive than the Forbidden City and was 3 times larger than the Forbidden City. We have lots of pictures of the many pagoda towers and pavilions. 3/4 of the grounds was a giant lake that was completely frozen over, and about 50 people braved the ice and walked right out into the lake on the ice. One person was even ice-skating despite signs that said keep off the ice! And there were no signs of security personnel, so if someone fell through the ice they would surely be out of luck!

We asked Jack to drop us off at the end of the day at the Da Dong roast duck restaurant, famous for its "special lean duck". Undoubtedly the most touristy and expensive roast duck restaurant in Beijing, it was well worth the experience and $35. The restaurant was modern chic and the duck was roasted and sliced right in front of US! I took a video of the carving :) You put the sliced duck into pancakes with hoison sauce and sticks of onion and scallion and radish and rolled it all up. It was very good! We weren't brave enough to eat the two milky substance-like soups that came with it, but we ate a fresh fruit platter that also was served with it. All of the fruit was the sliced/peeled kind.

We now have our bearings of Beijing and the area around our hotel. We can now cut through the huge shopping mall that is attached and find our way to the room. We are experts on the subway and it is easily the most effective way to get around Beijing because the traffic is so horrendous.....just like NYC and LA during rush hour!

Our impression of Beijing -- it is a HUGE, sprawling city with no signs of containment. It is not a beautiful city, but it is impressive for its size. There is much lacking in cleanliness -- there are huge sections of rundown and vacant buildings. However, there are just as many upscale, modern developments in the city and the subway and airports look so sparklingly clean -- yet, we saw two people urinating right on the floor. It is also very common to see people walking and then to start coughing and spitting on the street! So despite the appearance of cleanliness, personal hygiene is much to be desired. I have braved many restrooms only to find toilets-in-the-ground instead of actual sitting toilets.

The people, though, are much friendlier than we expected. Even though we cannot communicate with people, they still smile and nod at you and you hear a lot of laughter from groups of people and they do tend to line up instead of pushing through in herds like we do in the US. As I said before, our tour guide was SO friendly - he represents the "new China" and said there is very little government influence now among the people and with the exception of the oil, car, and airline industry, all other industries are 80% privately owned instead of state controlled. He said the Chinese do not spend time worrying about which country likes which country or whether the US has a good president as all of their time and energy now is focused on growing their economy. They are so absorbed with the growth they are rooting for the US economy to pick up too.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 15, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Beijing and Asia

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Day 5: Beijing, China and Flight to Shanghai, China

Beijing, China

Day 5: Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Beijing and flight to Shanghai, China

Today we finally slowed down our pace as we were exhausted from our first two busy days and are both fighting head colds. Luckily I packed a whole pharmacy with us, so we have plenty of medications to help us feel better. We also slowed down because it was the coldest day so far in Beijing, starting out at 18 degrees F and capping out at only 27 degrees. Brr! The wind is light, which helps, but 27 is still cold!

We started off the day with mini pancakes and pastries in the concierge lounge and then packed up our suitcases. The vacuum sealed bags work really well to squish our heavy clothing down to a manageable size, even through hand-rolling (in lieu of a vacuum). We are still wearing our same heavy clothes, so all our pictures will look like they were taken in one day. At least we'll know any photos in our warm-up pants were taken in Beijing!

First on our list was braving the famous touristy Pearl Market where I got my game on and hassled down the vendors to reasonable prices. We bought a 800 GB thumb drive (which is probably only 4 GB), a (most likely fake) cashmere shawl and some other clothes. We think we got a good deal although nothing is dirt cheap here in China. We bargained down to what we wanted to pay and then walked away. It was a welcome break from the cold as all other sight-seeing spots in Beijing are outdoors!

Across the street from the market was the famous Temple of Heaven, an all-wooden spherical temple that was constructed without even one nail. The temple was in the middle of another huge park, which was beautiful and would have been a nice afternoon stroll in the spring or fall. We weren't prepared for all the festivities in the park. There were huge groups of locals dancing to music, singing songs with their portable microphones and amplifiers, and older men and women playing cards and mahjong and dominos. It was a like a huge festival was going on, but we think this is standard activity in the park. Some women wore thick belts with bells on it so they could jingle as they swayed their hips, other couples were waltzing, and another group dressed up in Renaissance-like outfits with fake Groucho Marx mustaches. It was very bizarre! The architecture is the same coloring and style as the Summer Palace and Forbidden City. We had a nice walk with the audio guide and we lasted a good hour and a half before taking the metro back to the hotel.

We have definitely mastered the subway and recommend it to all future visitors. There is a stop right next to our hotel and the lines are clearly labeled. Our guide yesterday said by 2012 there will be subway lines all over the city. One more thing about the cleanliness. Line 5 is the nicest, but we noticed a lot of people employed as street/subway cleaners, so probably the Chinese lack of hygiene keeps many employed in cleaning type jobs! Also, the subway stops all have security baggage screeners, so you have to put your bags through the x-ray machine before you can walk through the turnstile. We need that in NYC, although we can only imagine the congestion it would cause in NY! Not many people here seemed to have bags on the subway, so we never had to wait for the machine. We found the metro much easier than taxis because many taxi drivers didn't know how to get to our hotel – as I previously wrote, one dropped us off at the Pearl Market and it was only due to Hunter's great sense of direction that he recognized a way from there to a major store near our hotel and the taxi driver knew the store location.

Another note about China – we felt very, very safe here and never once felt like we could be pick-pocketed or robbed. We also didn't see any indication that the country is not a democracy – it feels like a bustling, thriving capitalist society. Even though there is a military presence in the street and at the attractions, it feels more like the NYPD presence in NYC than military oversight. This is a big difference to how we felt in St. Petersburg, where we wouldn't walk around by ourselves. In Beijing, we were contented walking around not talking to anyone and feeing safe. We probably didn't even need money belts.

Actually – I may need to retract that safety comment as the taxi ride to the airport was quite scary! There are traffic lanes on the highways but many cars choose to ignore the lanes and just drive wherever they want on the road – two cars per lane, one car straddling two lanes, it doesn't matter to these drivers. And there are rarely any police cars on the highway, so traffic accidents cause huge traffic delays until a policeman can come to fill out a report for the insurance. The drivers in Beijing make NYC taxi drivers look good!

We left ourselves a good hour to get back to the airport, and it took only about 45 min this time as we left early enough before the rush hour began. The airport is huge and very clean and the information booth was helpful as we didn't know where to check in for our domestic flight. We ate dinner at a Kenny Rogers restaurant in the airport (spaghetti and meat sauce a la carte) and cleared security very quickly as we didn't need to take out any liquids or cameras, and then waited for our flight. Of course, our flight was the ONLY one in the whole terminal that was delayed! But all else went well in the airport – we didn't have to pay for any of our luggage as all was well under the weight limit and we were actually allowed 2 carry-on bags per person and 2 checked bags for free. There was also a China Construction Bank in the airport, which is a partner bank to Bank of America, so we were able to use a fee-free ATM to withdraw money. We had started the trip with a lot of Chinese Yuan, but no where except sit-down restaurants and mall-based shopping stores take credit cards, so we were eating through our money quickly. All of the tourist sights only took cash – even McDonalds turned away my credit card! (Yes – we finally mastered McDonalds as Hunter wanted a big lunch and ordered a #3 combo meal by pointing to the board. But he couldn't communicate his drink selection so he got whatever soda flavor they put in the cup! The whole meal was only $3 USD).

The plane to Shanghai wound up leaving an hour and a half late, by the time they loaded all the people and luggage, but we made up time in the air and were only 1 hour delayed arriving. We loved the plane. It was an old 767, and it reminded us of how nice air travel in the US used to be – there was so much leg room in coach, we thought we were in first class, and they served a full meal and two rounds of drinks! We slept most of the flight and easily collected our bags and got a taxi. We handed the directions to the taxi driver and he nodded silently and took us straight to the hotel. Taxis are much cheaper here than in Beijing. It took only about 30 minutes to get to the hotel and we were amazed at the beautiful skyline we could see from the road.

The hotel is GORGEOUS! It is the 3rd nicest hotel Meredith ever stayed in, and Hunter's nicest hotel. There are 60 floors, with the Executive Lounge (free WiFi) on the 59th floor, our room on the 51st floor, and the lobby on the 38th floor. Our platinum status upgraded us to a mini-suite which is very cool – BEAUTIFUL marble tile bathroom and a large separate sitting room, free slippers and robes and chocolates, etc. We are going to get spoiled – how can we go back to the Courtyards after experiencing this? We were in bed by 11:30pm and unfortunately didn't sleep well as we weren't very tired.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 16, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged China, Shanghai, Beijing and Asia

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