We Survived!

If you have been following my blog since the we started our latest adventure, you know that we are not “group tour” people. We decided to take guided tours for China and Russia because neither are particularly easy to negotiate on your own. We have been on the road for nearly 6 weeks and are feeling pretty weary. I can say with certainty that we will take another guided tour when hell freezes over! We did it, we made it, but we will not willingly do it again.

For those of you that enjoy the guided tour experience – good for you! For us, we much prefer going at our own pace which is slower than the pace that guided tours operate. We met some lovely people in our tour groups, which was a positive.

So, we will continue to explore our marvelous world but we will go it on our own!

The Final Overnight Train

Moscow and St. Petersburg

The Great Trans-Mongolian Railway Adventure!

We are already a couple of weeks into our trip from Beijing to St. Petersburg. We booked the trip with G Adventures. For the most part, we are happier with this group tour than the 2-week China tour with Gate 1. It has been an interesting experience. Internet has been pretty sparse, so this is the first chance I have had to upload anything to my blog. I am not totally caught up, but hope to be able to do so tomorrow. So, sit back, grab a cup of coffee and read all about it!

Back to Beijing: The Journey Begins

The Temple of Heaven

Train Day One: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar

The Border Crossing: China into Mongolia

Into Ulaanbaatar

Ger Camp

Leaving Mongolia: worst customs yet

Listvyanka and Lake Baikal

The Rest of our China Tour

We are now in Seoul, South Korea for a few days before returning to Beijing to start the next part of our trip. On the downside, as soon as we arrived here in Seoul, I got sick. On the upside, since I don’t feel up to sightseeing there is plenty of time for me to update my blog! The first 4 posts are related to our river cruise; the remaining are the places we visited after disembarking from the ship.

Shanghai to Yichang

3 Gorges Dam

Shennong Stream

Shibaozhai

Chongxing

Xi’An

Beijing, Day 1

Beijing, Day 2

Beijing, Day 3

Now that our China visit is wrapped up, you may be wondering what my impressions of China were. As I mentioned earlier, we had visited a few port cities on our previous trip here and had left feeling like we had not actually experienced China. We wanted to return to visit more of the inland cities and to take a river cruise. I had in my mind a vision of what China was like. Did my vision live up to the reality?

I guess the short answer is no. One thing I did not understand about China was how very much the cultural revolution changed the country. Perhaps if I had visited prior to this era (1966-1976) I may have seen the China I had expected to see. But, Mao Zedong and his regime destroyed that China. Over the past 40 or so years, things have changed dramatically. Entire villages have been “relocated” to relocation cities, which are just big cities filled with skyscrapers. Most Chinese people live in urban jungles of 20 to 30 story tall apartment buildings. Fortunately, not every cultural icon has been destroyed, but these icons are few and far between. Many of the buildings that have been constructed are quite ugly, so the cities lack charm.

Now, the younger generation of China no longer want to live anywhere but the big cities. They like the modern amenities, but have to work like crazy to keep up the lifestyle they want. As such, having children is no longer a priority. They prefer the “double income; no kids” life. The government revoked the “one couple, one child” law and still, people are not having many children. As such, the population is aging. It is very noticeable that there area many more older people here than younger. The couples that do have children expect their aging parents to take care of their young. Some parents are not longer willing to do so; they would rather travel and enjoy the fruits of all of their years of labor.

Because so many people live in apartments, parks are very important in the daily life of the Chinese. Every morning, the seniors of China head to the park for exercise, music, and conversation. After working hours, the young head to the parks. Public toilets are everywhere because a large portion of the population do not have a toilet in their home. And, of course, the vast majority of the toilets are the “squatty potty” type. If you visit, be sure to bring your own tp and by all means, don’t flush it. There is a wastebasket for you to dispose of your toilet paper next to the toilet.

I notice random things as we travel. Here are a few things I noticed:

• Smoking is everywhere. I saw many more men smoking than women. It is now against the law to smoke in a restaurant. So, smokers gather in the hallway instead.

• Electric scooters are a common mode of transportation. There is a separate bike lane on the roads. Some of the scooters have what I call “scooter mittens” sewn on to keep the rider warm. Even though the temperature was in the 80’s and 90’s while we were there, the scooter mittens were not removed.

• The beds are really, really hard. In the villages, people used to put a board on top of bricks and use that as a bed. I guess the hotel beds were a bit softer than that!

• Of course, you can’t access Facebook and other social media platforms (unless you have a VPN). But, were you aware that you can’t access Gmail, either? That came as a rude shock to me since I use that as my primary email account.

• The locals refer to white foreigners as “big noses”. Gotta love it!

• Spitting on the sidewalk is a big thing. I noticed this more early in the morning than at other times of day.

• Dining is family style. The only real downside to this is if 8-10 dishes are served, and you only like 2 of them, you are only going to get a couple of bites of those dishes since everyone is sharing.

• Ordering food at a fast food restaurant can be a challenge. To make it easier, some have printed menus where you can point and hold up fingers to show how much you want of each item. This generally works ok, but we did have an instance where we ordered 3 main dishes but only 2 sodas. When our order came we were given 3 sodas (because we ordered 3 items??). No big deal; I signaled for her to take one back. She got quite upset and told me it would cost more money. What??? She kept repeating, “more money, more money”and I kept shaking my head no. She eventually gave up.

• Make sure you have cash to pay for virtually everything, especially food. Your credit card may not be accepted everywhere.

Well, that’s it for now. I may or may not have anything to post about Seoul; it depends on if I get well before we leave. If not, my next posts will be about our 19-day trip from Beijing to St. Petersburg! Who knows if I will have any internet access for awhile, so stay tuned!

A few days in Shanghai

After a long but uneventful flight to Shanghai, we started our tour through Gate 1 Travel. This is a completely new experience for us and I will say: so far, so good. After having spent two days touring, I can definitely say that we made the right choice. Navigating on your own in China would be extremely difficult and it is wonderful to have someone getting us from point A to point B. Meals (for the most part) are taken care of, which is great because menus here are not written in English. I do miss being able to set our own pace but the trade off is worth it. Now, if I could only sleep at night. . .

I am very glad that I have T-Mobile cellular service which gives us internet access. I found out when we arrived that I cannot access Gmail in China and of course, no Facebook. But, I can access both using my cell service. Go T-Mobile! On the downside, Nord VPN does not work on iOS. I normally travel with my laptop (Nord VPN’s obfuscated server works with it) so was assuming that it would also work with my iPad. No go. Oh, well!

On our first day of touring, we visited the Jade Buddha Temple and the Bund. Shanghai, China

Our second day was spent in Suzhou, the Venice of the Orient.Suzhou, China

Today, we will be touring more of Shanghai before flying to Yichan to catch a 4-day Yangtze River cruise.

Off We Go!

Today, we leave for a completely different type of trip than we usually take. We are spending two weeks in China, flying to Seoul for 5 days, then spending 19 days traversing Mongolia and Russia on the Trans-Mongolian Railway followed by two weeks of cruising the Baltic and Norwegian Fjords on MSC.

What makes this trip so unique (other than the itinerary)? We have signed up for tours rather than traveling independently as we normally do. We will travel with Gate 1 Travel in China and G Adventures for the trek across Mongolia and Russia. Having briefly visited both China and Russia on previous trips, we knew that neither is particularly “user-friendly” for independent travelers. Most countries we have been to have enough English language signage and English speaking people for us to manage on our own; not so in either China or Russia. It will be an interesting experience being on organized tours; we shall see how it all works out!

I realized recently that I never finished my blog posts from our most recent trip to SE Asia. Partially this was because I got the creeping crud for the last couple of weeks of our trip, so we didn’t do too much while in Bangkok. I did write a post about Bangkok; I just never posted it! Here is a link to the post: Bangkok, Thailand

The main reason I never finished is that when we returned home from the trip we found that our beloved cat, Maxwell, was not feeling well. He wasn’t his usual self, so we took him to the vet. It turns out he had advanced kidney failure and had to be put to sleep immediately. I know those of you that have furry children understand how devastating this was for me. I was deeply affected by his passing and didn’t really feel like writing. So, I never finished my thoughts about traveling in SE Asia; perhaps I will do so while on this next trip. I definitely have some ideas that could be useful for those of you planning a trip to this part of the world.

I am curious to see how much my internet usage will be curtailed while in China. I know that social media and certain email apps are not allowed. I am hoping that at the very minimum, I will be able to keep my blog up to date. We do have a VPN that we will be using; hopefully, that will help. I am also assuming that while crossing Russia by train that internet availability will be severely limited. Stay tuned!

Cambodia

We stopped at a couple of cities in Cambodia, though we had visited both just a year ago. I wanted to visit the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh; our previous visit was too short and we did were not able to visit. And, we wanted to return to Siem Reap.

We took the VIP Cambodia Post van to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It is a 6-hour trip which can be done by bus, van, or boat. We did the journey by postal van last year and enjoyed it, so we decided to try it again. The postal service in Cambodia rents out seats in their vans for scheduled runs between major cities. It is a cheap and fun way to get from place to place. I guess I have become inured to the way of driving in SE Asia. Last year when we went from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, I was petrified much of the time (From Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: The ultimate game of chicken). This time around, I was much more chill – pass directly into oncoming traffic? No problem! Run someone off the road? No problem! Drive down the middle of the road? No problem!

I know it’s weird, but we did not revisit Angkor Wat while in Siem Reap. It is spectacular, but one visit was enough for us. Besides, I ended up getting sick for our entire stay in Siem Reap and spending hours in the blazing sun when ill is not worth it. So, we visited the APOPO Hero Rat Visitor’s Center and relaxed at our hotel.

The final leg of our journey will take us to Bangkok, and then we will head home.

Phnom Penh

APOPO Visitor Center

Siem Reap, Cambodia

 

 

Leaving Vietnam

After 3 weeks, we have left Vietnam and are now in Cambodia. We survived Tet. Though it was an interesting time to be in Vietnam, it was also challenging because almost everything shuts down – for up to 10 days. This made finding meals a bit difficult! But, the cities were decorated to the hilt which made for a festive atmosphere.

We took a boat trip from Saigon to Phnom Penh, which took a total of 3 days. It wasn’t quite what we expected, but parts of it were marvelous. Watching the sun set over the Mekong while gently floating along was magical. And, the sunrise wasn’t too shabby, either.

And, we are surviving the heat! While our friends back in Seattle are snowed in, we are adjusting to temperatures in the mid-90’s.

Ho Chi Minh City

Mekong Eyes from Saigon to Phnom Penh

Central Vietnam

Along the coast of Vietnam are three unique cities – Hué, Da Nang, and Hoi An. After the kinetic energy of Hanoi, we wanted to experience something different. Hue is known for its Imperial City; Da Nang for its beaches and the Marble Mountains; Hoi An for its Ancient Town.

Vietnam is in full swing preparing for the Lunar New Year (Tet). The streets are lined with yellow and red flowers; businesses have decorated Tet trees and signs wishing “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới”. Tet is not a one-day long celebration. Businesses close down as people travel to spend the time with their families. It as an interesting time to be in Vietnam!

Hué, Vietnam

Da Nang, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

 

Incredible Hanoi

Hanoi is such a fascinating city: the juxtaposition of old and new, the incessant sounds of horns beeping, the smells of food cooking, the difficulty of simply crossing a street!

We flew from Luang Prabang into Hanoi and had arranged a shuttle ride through our hotel, the Oriental Suites Hotel and Spa. We had stayed in the same hotel last year and enjoyed it so much that we booked it again. The drive from the airport takes 30-45 minutes, depending on traffic. And boy, is there traffic! One of the unique aspects of this city is its many modes of transportation, all sharing the same narrow streets. There are very few cars and trucks, but many motorcycles, cyclos (pedicabs), bicycles, and carts. We noticed many motorcycles carrying small trees; this was not something we had noticed on our previous trip, so were curious and resolved to look into it further after reaching our hotel.

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In the heart of town, there are very few traffic lights, so at each intersection, there are 4-5 lanes of traffic all trying to get through to the opposite side. This is what makes crossing the street such a challenge! Though there are crosswalks, they do not give a pedestrian any type of right-of-way. Vehicles definitely do not stop when they see you in one. Your best bet is to slowly cross, despite the fact that motorcycles and cars are rapidly driving right at you. And, once you have started, keep walking! Traffic will weave around you as long as you keep going. If you stop, you will cause problems. It is completely disconcerting at first, but after having spent 5 days here, I can say that I have become accustomed to it. We tried to take a couple of video clips to capture the experience, but there is no way to really understand it other than to actually do it.

There are sidewalks, but if you think they are for pedestrians, you would be wrong. For the most part, sidewalks are where the nearly 5 million motorcycles in this city get parked. If you find a patch of sidewalk without motorcycles, watch out. Most likely someone is riding their motorcycle down the sidewalk and is right behind you!

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Anything and everything is carried on a motorcycle. Or bicycle. Or cart. Or…

Hanoi is all about trade; there are shops lining every street and street vendors on the sidewalks. More than visiting museums, we enjoy walking the streets of the city, watching the everyday lives of the people that live here. It amazes me how so many sit on the teeny little footstools, both to eat and to do business. Many of the streets have the word “Hang” in them. It used to be that each Hang Street specialized in a particular type of goods. This is no longer true; most streets sell a variety of goods, though there are some streets that are more specialized.

So, why were so many trees being transported around the city? Tet (Lunar New Year) is coming in a few days, and the people of Vietnam are very busy preparing for it. Peach blossom trees and kumquat trees are brought in after the home has been cleaned from top to bottom. Some people just bring branches in; some bring the entire tree. There is an entire street (at least one) here that is dedicated to selling all things related Tet. It is an explosion of gold and red!

Yesterday, we noticed that carp were for sale in many market stalls. People buy them for Tet, and then release them into local lakes and streams. There are also people burning votive paper all up and down the street; some in small chimneys or woks, some just make a pile and let it burn right on the sidewalk. The practice is related to the belief that burning objects that their ancestors loved while still alive will send these objects to the “other side” to provide comfort for them there.

People are very friendly here, especially young people that are anxious to practice their English skills. English is one of the three main subjects taught in school. All are anxious to tell you what to eat here – bun cha, banh mi, pho, egg coffee, and so on. The food is amazing – there are so many excellent restaurants to choose from. We got hooked on Banh Mi 25 for lunches. For a mere $3 US, we could both get a sandwich and a coke. Egg coffee was better than expected. We tried drinking black coffee before we knew better – that was some nasty stuff! Better with lots of sweetener and foam.

There are plenty of interesting museums to visit, but what made it so enjoyable for us was simply being here for enough days to really experience the sights and sounds of the city. Of course, we did take in a few of the sights. We spent a considerable amount of time relaxing at Hoan Kiem Lake; it is a very popular place. Click on the links below for pictures and information on the places we visited:

A trip around Hanoi on the HOHO Bus

Vietnam Military History Museum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Lovely Hoan Kiem Lake

Temple of Literature

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater

Vietnam Women’s Museum