Waiting for the cruise to begin

I am writing this post while in Civitavecchia, Italy. Soon, we will be starting our next cruise adventure on the NCL Spirit.

Originally, we signed up for back to back cruises. The first would leave from Civitavecchia on February 10th and would essentially mirror the cruise we took in 2016 through the Middle East, ending in Dubai. The second would start in Dubai and travel down the coast of Africa to Cape Town. Total cruise days? 41!

Unbeknownst to us, the Spirit was getting a major refurbishment right before the first leg of our cruise. We had cruised on the Spirit in 2015 and loved the ship, so were pretty happy that we would be sailing on her again; practically a new ship after her spiffing up!

A few months ago, we received notification from NCL that the cruise would be delayed for a day. The cruise line would either pay for our hotel for a night and provide a free transfer from Rome to the port, or give us $300 on board credit (OBC). This was a no-brainer for us; show me the money! We could stay an extra night in Civitavecchia and get ourselves from the airport to the cruise port for much less than $300. We would miss one port, but a new one was added, so no big deal.

A few days before we were set to leave Thailand, we received another notification from NCL. Apparently, there were labor issues in France (where the ship was being refurbished) and the cruise was going to be delayed by 3 more days. This was a bigger deal – 4 ports were removed from the itinerary and now we had to fill 3 more days in Italy. Our compensation would be a 25% refund on the cruise, and 25% towards a future cruise. The dates for the remaining ports were almost all changed, which meant changing pre-arranged tours. Fortunately, that was possible in most of the ports. One exception was Haifa, Israel. The tour company was not willing to accommodate our new date, and would keep 75% of the prepaid amount due to the late notification. Grrr!!! We will be in Haifa 2 and a half days. One of those days is now completely free. I have not been able to find a new tour at this late date, so we may end up taking the train to Jaffa. I was really looking forward to our Masada tour, but it is not going to happen. We will still be able to tour Jerusalem, and I am know that we will thoroughly enjoy it (even though we have toured there before!).

We took the train in to Rome for the day. We have been a couple of times before, so I a, not going to write about it. We just rode the HOHO bus around. I took a few pictures of the Colosseum. We saw so many Smart cars! These baby sized cars are perfect for Rome given that the parking there is abysmal. I love how they park them sideways. I have NO idea how the cars parked around them can get out!!!


Our ship has arrived in port, but is not ready for embarkation for a few more days. So, we relax in our apartment in Civitavecchia while we wait. A few minor bumps in the road related to the cruise, but life is good! We board the ship tomorrow.

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As seen in Civitavecchia – a joint dispenser!😱

Here a Wat, There a Wat, Everywhere a Wat, Wat!

You may wonder at the title of my post, unless you have been to Chiang Mai. It was amazing with all of the walking we did how many temples we ran across! Many are found within the old city walls, but we also randomly ran into temples on little side streets everywhere we went. It is hard to believe, but a month has passed since we arrived in Chiang Mai! If you are curious why I have not been posting much, it is because our goal for this trip was a bit different than usual – we wanted to see whether or not we would want to come back to spend our winters in the city, not to be tourists.

The month flew by! We walked all over town (the old city) and all over the outskirts of town. We averaged around 7 miles per day, always avoiding the hottest part of the day by walking in the morning and evening, when the temperature is most comfortable.

If you want to read our impressions of the city after spending a month there, click here: Impressions of Chiang Mai

And, if you want to read about the touristy things we did, here are links:

Mae Ping River Cruise 2020

Tiger Kingdom

Chiang Mai Zoo

Lanna Smile Thai Cooking School

The Road to Doi Suthep

One of the places I very much wanted to visit on this trip was Doi Suthep. Technically, that is the name of a mountain just outside of Chiang Mai, but it is what most people call the temple located there. It can be reached by taxi or songthaew, but we thought it would be a nice ride on our rental scooters.

Yes, despite crashing on our first ride, Clayton decided to hop back in the saddle for another go at it. The rental company was happy to rent him another bike, but with double the deposit as the first one! And, since the one he crashed isn’t rideable, we had to pay for another rental period. We still don’t know how much it will cost to fix the first bike, but hopefully it won’t be too expensive.

The ride to Doi Suthep looked very straightforward on the map. The road in front of our condo would take us all the way there, with no turns! A mere 5.5 miles away!

Before we made it out of town, we were pulled over by the motorcycle police. The cop had a huge smile on his face. I imagine that he was thinking that he could write a nice fat fine for each of us. He was surprised when we pulled out our international driver’s licenses. He smiled some more and sent us on our way.

The ride to the Wat (temple) was the windiest, steepest ride I have ever taken. As a matter of fact, it is probably the windiest, steepest road I have been on in any type of vehicle! I was awfully glad to be on a bike since I am prone to motion sickness when in a car or bus. The entire ride was made up of hairpin turns, mile after mile of them. The closer we got to the temple, the steeper the road and hairier the turns. This is definitely not a ride for beginners! We were in awe of those making the ride on bicycles. Incredible. I cannot imagine being able to ride uphill all of those miles. On the other hand, the downhill part would be a hoot on a bike!

We knew when we reached the temple because of the multiple tour buses, vans, songthaews, and scooters parked along the road. It was a madhouse – people everywhere. Clayton hates crowds, so he immediately wanted to turn around. I wanted to see the temple, so suggested he find a quiet place in the shade while I climbed the stairs to the temple.

I took a few photos of the entryway:

Then, I turned the corner and saw “it” – the stairway to heaven. Or, in this case, the stairway to the Wat. OK, I chickened out. I did not want to climb all of those stairs by myself. I could justify it by telling you I have a heart condition and don’t feel comfortable physically exerting myself alone, but really, I just didn’t want to make the climb in the heat!!

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So, we headed back down the mountain. We followed a pair of people on bicycles on the road down. There is only one lane downhill (two going uphill), so passing them wasn’t really an option. But, due to the steepness of the road, they really didn’t slow us down. It was good to go slow due to the sharpness of the turns.

So, if you want to see pictures of Doi Suthep, you will need to google it – this lazy woman didn’t make it to the top. But, we had a very enjoyable ride and definitely had the opportunity to master sharp turns on our scooters!!!

Chiang Mai 2020

Rather than spend our time in chilly Seattle, we are trying something different. We enjoyed our stay in Chiang Mai so much last year that we decided to try spending a longer amount of time – a month. We may be Chiang Mai snowbirds if we like it enough! Rather than stay in a hotel, we have rented an Air BnB condo in between the old city and the Nimman area.

Rather than doing touristy things, we are just living our lives as if we were at home, albeit eating inexpensive, delicious food and enjoying the warmer temperatures! We are doing lots of walking but have also tried the city bus system and songtaews (red pickup trucks) . Songtaew literally means “two benches” – they are the cheap taxi of Thailand. For 30 baht (a little less than one USD), they will take you anywhere within the city. You flag them down and tell the driver where you want to go. If they are headed that way you simply hop in the back and they take you to your destination. The city bus is new – it has only been in existence for a year. Virtually no one rides them. Though they are air conditioned and more comfortable than a songtaew, they don’t run very frequently and cost the same. When we took the bus, we had to wait for nearly a half-hour to be picked up. No big deal, except that for the same cost, we could’ve arrived at our destination much earlier and have been taken directly to the doorstep of where we were headed.

A few random photos taken around town:

Last year, when we were here, we decided that we would like to have the freedom of driving ourselves around. In most of SE Asia, that means riding a scooter. Clayton knew how to ride a motorcycle, but I had a fear of riding stemming back from my college days when a boyfriend of mine had a bike. When going for my first ride, he thought it was extra funny to scare the living daylights out of me – accelerating fast, leaning extra far into turns, etc. One ride was enough – I was not going to ever ride a motorcycle again! But, if I was going to ride a scooter in Thailand, I would need to overcome my fear. So, when we returned to the US, we took a motorcycle safety class. I figured it would tell me whether or not riding overseas would be a possibility; I had absolutely no plans to ride around Seattle. To my great surprise, I aced the class (I fully expected to fail when I signed up). This made me eligible to get my motorcycle endorsement added to my driver’s license. After taking that step, the next logical step was being able to ride at home, which required purchasing bikes. Clayton bought a motorcycle and I purchased a scooter (200cc, so theoretically I can go up to 80 mph on it). We fell in love with riding! We spent a glorious spring, summer, and fall riding around the greater Seattle area. We definitely felt ready to ride on our trip to Thailand.

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Fast forward to now – we decided to rent scooters for a week to see how we liked riding in Chiang Mai. One difficulty about riding here is that they drive on the opposite side of the road than we are used to. I was a bit worried about doing something dumb like turning into opposing traffic. That turned out to not be an issue. What is an issue is the crazy drivers here! There may be traffic laws, but they are routinely ignored. Lane splitting is the norm (driving between two lanes of traffic on a scooter/motorcycle). Driving here is an adventure! Hardly anyone wears any type of safety gear, though theoretically helmets are compulsory. Another issue is having no idea where you are going – being completely unfamiliar with the roads. Fortunately, road signs are in both English and Thai, but it is still really tough to navigate when you don’t know where you are going.

One word of warning if you are thinking of renting a scooter here – you will need an international driver’s license as well as a motorcycle endorsement. The international driver’s license can be obtained from AAA for $20. If you don’t have one and get pulled over (the police DO look for farang (white) drivers), you will be fined 500 Baht.

On our first ride, I got us hopelessly lost. I thought I had a route planned, but it didn’t quite go as planned. We ended up on the freeway which is definitely not what I had planned. So, we exited and regrouped. As we were heading back towards the freeway to return to our condo, I looked behind me and saw a rider and bike sprawled on the road. Sadly, it was Clayton! I was so scared that he had been badly injured. I pulled over and ran back to him. He was extremely lucky – lots of abrasions, but no broken bones. And, since he was wearing a helmet, riding gloves, long pants, and a jacket, the road rash was not nearly as bad as it could have been.

The bike was a bit worse for the wear – the front tire was now out of alignment. A very nice Thai man came out to assist us. He owned a bike repair shop, but did not have the equipment to fix the bike. So, we called the rental agency and told them what happened. Their manager was at the police station and wasn’t available to help us. So, they suggested we get back home and they would pick up the bike later. Clayton flagged down a songtaew and I followed it. At least tried to – the driver had a very hard time staying in a lane – kind of like Mr. Toad’s wild ride! We eventually made it back and cleaned up Clayton’s wounds. The bike shop never did get back to us to tell us whether or not they picked up the bike or how much the repairs will cost us. We shall see! By the way, we still don’t know how he fell; he didn’t hit anything, nothing hit him, he was steering straight ahead and the bike went down.

Clayton thinks he would like to rent another scooter so we can follow through with our plans to ride around the area. He is pretty stiff and sore at this point so will wait a couple of days to heal up before “getting back in the saddle”.

Beyond riding, we don’t have much planned in terms of tourist activities. We may take in a ladyboy cabaret show just for fun, and if I am feeling extra cheesy, we might head to Tiger World, where for 15 minutes you get to play with a tiger. Or, perhaps a visit to Elephant Poo Poo Park is in order…and massages, of course!

A couple of things we have noticed on this stay are that there are WAY more Chinese tourists in Chiang Mai this year than last, and that there are tons of farangs staying in our area. Chinese tourism is booming in SE Asia. About 98% of the farangs are male and of retirement age. They tend to hang out at restaurants that serve American food and drink together all afternoon and evening. Some have Thai girlfriends that are 1/3 of their age. I am sure the girls are in it for the sparkling personalities of their older boyfriends. Right?

Also, if you stay in the old city, you can use a credit card at many restaurants. Where we are staying, cash is king. The ATM fee for withdrawal is pretty stiff here – around $7 per withdrawal, so it is best to draw the maximum amount of Baht to avoid paying the fee repeatedly for smaller withdrawals. Or, do like we did and set up a Charles Schwab checking account. They reimburse your ATM fees.

Photos of a few more things that caught my eye:

 

 

A little bit about our cruise (better late than never!):

In case you are wondering why I never posted about our Baltic/Norwegian fjord cruise, there are a couple of reasons. One is that I did not have internet access on the cruise ship but the main one is that we were so fatigued after our trip across China and Russia that I decided to take a break from blogging. Besides, we had been to almost all of the ports before and so did not take any excursions. No excursions, not much to write about!

I will, however, share my thoughts on MSC cruise lines. We almost always cruise on Norwegian or Princess; this was a change for us. Why did we decide on MSC? Mainly because their itinerary matched perfectly with the end of our railway tour. We finished up in Russia on June 14th; the cruise left from Copenhagen on June 15th. Additionally, MSC does a “status match” which enabled us to have the highest status on their cruise line (black level).

MSC is a European cruise line and so we knew there would be some differences from what we were used to. We were shocked that when we booked the cruise a year out that all of the balconies were taken except for the rear-facing balconies. These rear-facing cabins are a hot commodity on most cruise lines. What could be better than being able to watch the wake of the ship from one’s own cabin? I find watching the wake mesmerizing.

All announcements are given in 5 different languages, given the composition of guests onboard. On our cruise, Germans seemed to be the largest group onboard.

One of the things we like most about NCL is the ability to choose when and where to eat. We were disappointed to find that we only had the option of assigned seating in the formal dining room, and the only alternative dining venue was a sushi restaurant. So, we ate at the buffet. The buffet hours were geared towards Europeans (or at least I am assuming so) – dinner wasn’t served until 6:30 pm. This is pretty late for us; we are early eaters.

The ship itself was quite lovely. Our cabin was nice and our cabin steward was excellent. The balcony was huge because it was at the aft of the ship; much larger than a typical cruise ship balcony. We spent numerous hours enjoying the view.

Rather than posting much about the ports, most of my posts are pictures I took. Heck, I didn’t even take many photos, which is unusual for me!

We are very happy to be back home and have been busily planning our next major trip. We will be returning to Chiang Mai, Thailand for the month of January before flying to Rome to start back-to-back cruises that will take us through the Middle East and down the cost of Africa, ending in Cape Town.

Warnemünde

Stockholm

Tallinn

Stavanger, Norway

Flam, Norway

Geiranger, Norway

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.