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Viking River Cruises

March - April, 2012

By Jack Welsch

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Our RouteThis trip was to celebrate my very recent retirement and to "get out of Dodge." It was the first time in decades when I didn't have to call the office or check voicemail and/or e-mail and what a treat that was!!! The trip, which Viking River Cruises calls "China's Cultural Delights" is billed as a 17-day "odyssey". We were among a relatively few people who elected the 4-night extension to Guilin and Hong Kong and I'm glad we did.

Viking took us in hand upon our arrival in Beijing and delivered us to the airport in Hong Kong for the trip home. While we did have a little time to explore on our own, someone from Viking was always available to us. They did a great job, of which I'll say more below.

If you want to see a LOT more pictures of this trip along with a more detailed map showing the route followed, see my blog on TravBuddy.

With a population of about 20 million, Beijing, is the second-largest city in China (after Shanghai). In spite of strict controls that attempt to limit the number of vehicles, there is a lot of traffic. Our tour guide warned us that traffic is horrible but I think he said that only because he's never been in India. Compared to that, Beijing is Kansas! Air quality when we were there was terrible and my understanding is that that is pretty normal for Beijing as well as much of China.

HutongThe contrasts are remarkable; some people live in local communities called hutongs where there is not even indoor plumbing. To use the toilet or take a shower, you go to a shared facility down the street. In the other hand, there are magnificent modern buildings that rival anything you might find in the western world. Our hotel was one of te finest we've stayed in anywhere and the mall across the street was ultra chic and all the shops were Dior, Gucci, etc.

Yonghe Lamasery

Large BuddhaMore commonly known as the Lama Temple is said to be the oldest lamersary in China. Originally the home of an emperor, it became a lamersary and center of Lama administration in China in the 18th century. Within the grounds are many temples and alters and worshippers can be seen burning incense and praying everywhere. Be sure to see the 18 meter high sandalwood Buddha statue, which is covered in gold leaf!

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen SquareAt 109 acres, it's BIG! At the center is the granite "Monument to the People's Heroes". Near it are two huge screens showing what are basically promotional pictures of China. On the east side of the square is the National Museum. On the south is is the "Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao, containing his mummified body in a crystal coffin. To the west is the "Great Hall of the People", the meeting place for the National People's Congress. Finally, to the north is the "Gate of Heavenly Peace" AKA the "Tiananmen Tower." This is the gate to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City

Forbidden CityThe Forbidden City was the home of 24 Emperors of the Ming and Qing ("Ching") dynasties and it was, indeed, a city within a city. The outer court was where state functions occured while the inner court was the home of the imperial family. I was amazed at the size of this place; it seemed to go on forever with one great hall after the other. Unbelievably, it contains 999 rooms! This is not the place to come if you have trouble walking. The 1987 film, "The Last Emperor" was shot here and watching it will give you a better idea of what it's like.

The Summer Palace

Summer Palace, BeijingThe Summer Palace was, I guess, the "Camp David" of the Chinese Emperors; a place to get away from the city. It is an area of beautiful gardens highlighted by a man-made lake and man-made hill made of the material removed to form the lake. What we could see was intriguing but when we were there the air quality was so bad we could barely make out the far side of the lake!

Sacred Road of the Ming Tombs

Sacred RoadThis is a ceremonial pathway leading to the Ming Tombs just outside Beijing. The entire pathway is lined with statues, some of men and some of animals, real and mythological. At the southern end is a large gate house within which is a statue of a tortoise with a large column on its back. There were not a lot of people present when we were there so the walk was very peaceful. This is a nice place to visit.

The Great Wall at Badaling

The Great Wall at BadalingAs everyone knows, the Great wall is both ancient and LONG. Initial walls were built as early as the 7th century BC. There are a few places near Beijing where you can visit the wall. The best preserved (or maybe restored) is at Badaling and that's where we went. It's quite a long bus ride north of Beijing but, of course, well worth it. It's a rather long walk from where the bus lets you off to the wall and then you can walk a long way in either direction once you climb the steps to the wall itself. The steps are uneven in both rise and run and on some the rise is quite significant. In other places, there are no steps even though the slope is pretty steep. All of this combined with the rough surface and inconsistent handrails makes for some rough going. This place is most definitely not ADA compliant!

All that aside, it's unbelievable and you must see it if you possibly can. If the air is clear (as it was for a short time during our visit) you can see the wall running away over one hill after the other, far into the distance.

The Beijing Opera

Beijing OperaI must confess that, though I do love opera, this left me cold. The show we saw was 90 minutes long and was highlights of 4 different operas. Now, I respect those with a taste refined enough to appreciate it but to me it was discordant noise. I guess I'm glad I had the experience but it is highly unlikely I'll go again. Yes, I know many of you don't share my love of Puccini, Mozart or Wagner either; beauty is strictly a matter of personal taste. Some obviously love Bejing opera; I'm just not among them.

Xi'an (Pronounced "she-ahn") boasts the most complete city wall in China and I'm told to walk on it is a real treat, especially at night. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to do that. With a city population of about 4 million and a metropolitan population of about 7.5 million, Xian is relatively small by Chinese standards but still large by US standards. Must people in our group saw nothing of the city itself. As you can read in my diary below, my friend Jim drove us through the city center at night so we could see it all lit up. It's really quite beautiful!

The Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta WarriorsTruly the work of a megalomaniac, the Terracotta Army was created at on the orders of the first Emperor of the Qin ("Chin") Dynasty to guard him in the afterlife. It was discovered in 1974 by some farmers. The army consists of officers, infantry, charioteers, horses and weapons. The most interesting aspect in my mind is that the faces are all unique! Over 7,000 have been uncovered and it is believed that most of the figures are still buried as is the Emperor's tomb itself. It's an amazing sight.

Tang Dynasty Xi'an

Tang Dynasty Xi'anThis, in my opinion, was a GREAT show! We preceded it by a delicious dumpling dinner with our friends from Xi'an, Jim and Linda. Like the Beijing Opera, the show itself was 90 minutes long but the music and choreography were absolutely beautiful.



The Yangtze River

At 3554 miles in length, The Yangtze is the world's third longest river, after the Nile & Amazon. It drains 1/5 of China's area. We cruised from Chongqing to Nanjing. The first part of that distance was through the Three Gorges and the scenery was magnificent. The remainder was through flat land that was, frankly, not terribly scenic.

The Three (Greater) Gorges

With steep slopes and even sheer cliffs on each side of the river, the three gorges are simply magnificent. They form something of a micro-climate so there is often a mist or even fog that makes them seem somewhat mysterious.

The Three Lesser Gorges

The river Daning flows from the north and joins the Yangtze at Wushan. Before doing so, it flows through the narrow Lesser Gorges. Sadly, the Three Gorges Dam has raised the water level to the extent that these gorges are not as dramatic as they once were but they are still spellbinding and well worth the trip.

Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges DamBy many measures, the Three Gorges Dam was the largest construction project ever. Over 1-1/4 miles long and over 600 feet high, the dam creates a reservoir over 400 MILES in length! The twin set of 5-chamber locks can raise and lower huge ocean-going ships and a ship elevator for smaller vessels is under construction. Many more statistics can be cited and they are all incredible.

The Three Gorges Dam has been, to say the least, controversial. On the positive side, the dam is alleged to reduce flooding, improve navigation and provide a LOT of hydroelectric power (8 times the capacity of Hoover Dam.

On the other hand, the cost has been staggering in more ways then economics. Depending on the source of the data, from 1.2 to 1.6 MILLION people have been dislocated, many with negligible compensation and all without a voice in the process. According to data provided by Viking, 13 cities, 140 towns, 4,500 villages, 1,300 archeological sites, 650 factories and 1,600 enterprises have been lost to the waters of the reservoir! The ecology has been devastated and there is reason to believe that will get even worse.

The "nice" thing about a totalitarian government is that they don't have to worry about such "trivialities" as the rights of the people; they can do as they "dam" well please. OK, now you know how I feel. Oh, and I'm an ENGINEER! As an engineer, I was impressed. As a human, I'm appalled.

Our view of Suzhou (pronounced "Sue-Joe") was undoubtedly colored by the fact that we were there on a rainy day that also involved a loooooong bus ride from Nanjing and Shanghai. Consequently, we didn't enjoy it as much as we should have. The city, I'm told, is well known as the home of an inordinate number of learned people including I. M. Pei, the architect of the famous (or infamous if you prefer) glass pyramid at the Louvre.

Canals of Suzhou

Suzhou has been called the "Venice of Asia" but, having seen both, I don't buy it. Admittedly, you'd not want to bath in the canals of either but I don't thnk Suzhou shared the romantic charm of Venice. Maybe that was the rain or maybe that's just me. In any case, I'll admit they were interesting.

Fisherman's Garden

Fisherman's GardenMore properly called the Garden of the Master of the Nets, this is the smallest of the many gardens in Suzhou but it is designed in such a way that it feels quite spacious. It is said to be the most ornate and best preserved of the gardens in Suzhou. It was originally designed during the Song Dynasty and was part of a residence well into the 19th century. The inner garden was used as the model for The Ming Hall Garden in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shanghai is much more westernized than Beijing and is absolutely stunning. The classical buildings of the Bund contrast sharply with the tall, modern buildings in Pudong, just across the busy Huangpu River. Seen from the historic city center, the Pudong skyline is highlighted by the unique Pearl Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center, once the world's tallest building. With almost 17 million people, Shanghai is the largest in China and the 10th largest in the world. It hosts a huge expat community. The bottom line is that Shanghai is a great place to visit.

The Bund

The BundThe Bund is surprising as the architecture looks so totally out of place in Shanghai. Rather than Asian architecture, one finds buildings in several European styles as this was a major financial center from the late 19th century. Zhongshan Road runs in front of the historic buildings and, across from it, a raised pedestrian walkway separates the road from the Huangpu River. A stroll along that wide walkway reveals the classical architecture to the west contrasting sharply with the modern architecture of Pudong, across the river. It's an amazing sight.

Nanjing Road

Nanjing Road is a major shopping road stretching westward from the Bund. Part of it is a wide pedestrian walkway where the only vehicles are trams and traffic on the cross-streets. Many of the shops are very exclusive though one can find more down-to-earth stores as well. I'm not much for shopping but for people-watching, it's great.

Yuyuan (or Yu Yuan) Garden

Yuyuan GardenThe Yuyuan garden was constructed during the Ming Dynasty by a government officer as a tranquil place for his parents to live in their old age. I've asked my sons to do the same for us but so far without result.

With a size of about 5 acres, Yuyuan Garden is much larger than what we saw in Suzhou though still not huge. However, it is absolutely breathtaking. For a much more detailed description of this magnificent place, see the article here.


Li RiverWhen you see the strange steep-sided, domed mountains in classical Chinese paintings, you may think they are ficticious. They're not; they can be found along the Li River in Southern China. To see them, you'll fly to Guilin and take a boat trip. Boats range from relatively large ones with several decks to small rafts carring only a few people. We took the former though I'd have preferred the latter. Whether you look at the magnificent mountains or the people and activities along the river, I promise you will find it wonderfuly picturesque. The prevalent mist dampens the color a bit but it's still beautiful. I took more photos in a few hours on the river than on the total of some of my shorter trips!

While not my favorite city in the world (that's Paris, followed by Buenos Aires, Vienna and Chicago), I think Hong Kong may be among the world's most interesting. It is an fascinating mélange of East and West that was once unique, though Shanghai is certainly a challenger.

From Victoria PeakWhile Hong Kong is, overall, fairly expensive, there are a number of things that are free or at least cheap.  A central feature, of course, is busy Victoria Harbor, separating the island of Hong Kong from Kowloon on the mainland. A special (and really cheap!) treat is a ride on the Star Ferry. They run frequently between Central and Kowloon.

The nightly "Symphony of Lights" show is a delightful blend of music, colored lights, searchlights and lasers involving buildings on both sides of the harbor. It's quite spectacular and it's free.

Victoria Peak raises above Hong Kong Island and offers great views.  The most interesting way to get up there is on the Victoria Peak Tram, which has been in operation for well over a century.

Viking River Cruises

In a word, they were great! From the time Matthew picked us up at the airport in Beijing until we were delivered to the airport in Hong Kong for the trip home, we were in good hands. As you'd expect, Matthew has a deep understanding of the country's history and culture and he shared it throughout the trip. At every place we visited, though, he was supplemented by a local guide who had more in-depth local knowledge. Matthew also served as den mother to our group, delivering services ranging from finding me AA batteries and a set of CDs of Chinese music to taking one of our group to the ER.

I had only two negative comments to provide to Viking on my return. The significant one was that checkout from the ship was poorly organized and quite stressful. They need to improve that. The second was only a matter of personal taste. In what is surely an attempt to deliver "your money's worth", the itinerary was packed with activities and at times it got pretty tiring. I'd have been OK with dropping a few activities and that's exactly what we did a couple of times. More detail on both issues can be found in my diary for March 30 below. All in all, though, Viking is top notch and it's highly likely we'll use them again.

Viking Century Emerald

Viking Century EmeraldAs required by Chinese law, the ship is a joint venture between Viking and a state-owned company, Century. Built in Chongqing in 2010, it is 110 meters long and carries 256 passengers. The ship is very nice and the staff efficient and friendly. What impressed me most, I think, is the everyone's ability to remember the names of every passenger. As an example, though seating in the dining room was open, when I arrived alone for breakfast on the third day, the waiter said, "Good morning, Jack; will Linda be joining you?" And I was NOT wearing my name tag! That was not an isolated incident; everyone on the ship seemed to have the same talent. I'm guessing Viking trains for it.

Viking Century EmeraldWe had a standard balcony stateroom and, for a ship, it was spacious at 269 square feet. A wide screen HDTV offered a variety of stations including BBC, CNBC, HBO, etc.

As to facilities, there was an Internet lounge (which I didn't use since there was WiFi everywhere) and a workout room (which I didn't use since I'm basically lazy), a reading/game room, etc., etc.

The Observation Lounge was the venue for most programs but we preferred the smaller Emerald Bar where an excellent duo offered dance music every night.

In the dining room, breakfast and lunch offered the choice of buffet or menu items. Dinner was from the menu. Seating was open for all meals but by the end of the cruise we had pretty much settled on one station and it looked like most others did the same.

Westin Beijing Financial Street

This is a top-notch hotel and apparently quite new. It rates among the best we've visited anywhere. As you might gather from the hotel's name, the location is less than ideal from a tourist perspective, however. About the only thing we found to do locally was to walk through the mall across the street. That is an amazing place with very upscale stores but, surprisingly, it was almost empty.

The hotel is modern and tastefully done. The large lobby lounge offers frequent and enjoyable musical entertainment.

Our room was large, elegant and well appointed. An interesting feature was a window between the bedroom and the shower stall; kinky! There were, however, powered blinds to provide privacy as desired.

The buffet restaurant offered a wide selection of international dishes. The "Chinese" restaurant is somewhat upscale and food and service were great. Not surprisingly, the Italian restaurant was unexciting.

Crowne Plaza, Xi'an

The Crowne Plaza is very new and modern. The lobby is huge, mostly marble and absolutely beautiful. Our room was superb and, at the time, the best we'd stayed in anywhere in the world. The door to our room opened into a small foyer where there was a magnificent piece of art representing a huge ancient coin. There was also a huge walk-in closet and then the large, well-appointed room itself. A modern desk was well supplied with office supplies and WiFi was free.

The bathroom was large, marble and modern. Here, again, there was a window into the bathroom, this one between the tub and the office area. Again, there were powered blinds. I really cannot comment on the location as the only times we left were by car to the show and by bus to the Terracotta Warriors.

The only meal we ate in the hotel was the buffet breakfast. There was a wide selection and it was quite good.

Westin Bund Center, Shanghai

This one aced out the hotel in Xi'an to take our number one spot; it was fantastic! In fairness, we were certainly influenced by the fact that we'd been upgraded to a suite in the "Golden Tower". Living room, bedroom and bathroom were all very large with massive sliding doors between them. Here, again, the desk was well supplied and WiFi was free. The only small issue I had was that there were only two elevators in our rather large tower so the wait was sometimes long.

We ate several meals in the buffet restaurant. It was good but not as good, I think, as some of the other hotels on this trip. I'll admit that the seafood buffet, however, was outstanding.

The location is excellent; it's a relatively short walk to both the Bund and Nanjing road, both areas worth exploring. I admit that I was a tad nervous when I walked alone to the Bund at night. I'd been assured it was quite safe but it was dark and lonely. That may not have been among the smartest things I've done in my life.

Shangri-La, Guilin

WOW! I don't think I've ever had a more dramatic reception. A large staff in traditional costumes welcomed us upon arrival with hand towels and fruit drinks, then whisked us to our rooms.

Our room here was not as dramatic as others on this trip but still very nice. The dining room was nice and the buffet dinner and breakfast were excellent. I especially liked the option of Indian and other Asian foods at dinner; it made for a nice change. Guilin looked like a really nice town as we drove through and I was a tad disappointed that the hotel wasn't closer to the center of things but the area around the hotel was very peaceful. I saw the grounds only at night but what I saw caused me to wish we could have stayed longer.

Hong Kong Shangri-La, Kowloon

Personally, I think it's nicer to stay in Kowloon looking at the island than the other way around. I'd originally thought this hotel was closer to the ferry dock and was somewhat disappointed that it was not but that really was not an issue. It was in a nice area with lots of restaurants and shops and the walk to Nathan Road was reasonable.

The hotel lobby was large and all marble and there was restful live entertainment most of the time. Our room, though nice, was not as great as others on the trip. Like every other hotel in which we'd stayed, WiFi was free. Buffet breakfast was extensive and quite good.


Tuesday, March 13, Newark, N.J.

Our outbound flight was from Newark to Beijing and since you can never depend on March weather in the Northeast, we decided to go down the day before departure and stay overnight at the airport Marriott. We'd also arranged for a driver to take us to Newark so we wouldn't have to park the car or deal with a long drive after a long flight home. We left home at 3:00 and, though I-80 was closed due to a fatal accident, we made it to the Marriott at EWR by about 5:30.

Wednesday, March 14 - Newark to Beijing

We'd booked a 1:05 PM non-stop flight on Continental and my very good friend, Darryl, had gotten us coupons for the President's club and for standby to Business Class.  To give ourselves every advantage in getting the standby seats, we got to the airport early, had breakfast and settled into the P-club.  Darryl had told me to check in with the concierge at the gate and the gate for our flight was as yet unmanned.  I asked in the club where beside the gate I might find one and was sent to a gate where they were loading for Nartita.  No concierge there either but the agent, Joe, put me on the priority list and told me I should check back in at the gate to see if we got the seats.  The P-club made the wait infinitely better.  When we arrived at the gate, the agent there said only a concierge could help me but before one showed up, Joe did and without my even my asking, issued our upgrade to seats 11A & B. 

Business class is soooooo much nicer than what I call "steerage"! The meal was great and these seats folded absolutely flat so it was easier to sleep.

Our RouteLong before we left home I'd looked at a globe to see if I could anticipate our routing and figured we'd fly far north of Alaska and the GPS on the plane initially showed that as the route.  However, when we were near Hudson Strait, the pilot turned right and we went over the center of Greenland and north of Scandinavia, then flew over Siberia and Mongolia. 

In spite of the great seats, I slept only 60-90 minutes but Lin was down for 4 hours or more.

Thursday, March 15 - Beijing

We landed in Beijing about 3:00 PM.  Though they have several, we arrived at the beautiful new terminal build for the Olympics.  Once through formalities, were met by our guide, Matthew, and two other travelers, Bonnie and Jock from Virginia Beach.  It was almost 5:00 when we got to the Westin Beijing Financial Center.  The hotel and our rather large room were modern and absolutely beautiful.  We were shot so we had dinner in the hotel and hit the rack before 7.  I failed to notice their Chinese restaurant so we ended up at an Italian one.  It was only OK but at this point, we were focused only on bed!

Friday, March 16 - Beijing

Lama Temple, BeijingNot surprisingly, I slept fitfully and woke about 6:oo.  After buffet breakfast in the hotel we had a day on our own so, based on Matthew's recommendation, we took a cab to the Lama temple. Air quality in Beijing is something less than stellar so visibility was lousy and the photos are not what one would hope for but the temple was fascinating.  Leaving the temple, we walked the neighborhood a bit before heading back to the hotel.

After a quick stop in the room, went across the street to the Season's Place Shopping Center, which is really what we would call a mall.  The mall is super modern and upscale with Gucci, Versace, etc.  We walked around quite a bit trying to figure out what to do for lunch and I'm embarrassed to say we ended up with sweet & sour chicken in TGI Friday's. 

After a much-needed nap, we had dinner at "Jewel", the hotel's Chinese restaurant.  The menu was truly a mystery as the Chinese names were accompanied by English descriptions rather than the names with we were familiar.  We finally asked for help and the waitress suggested Sweet & Sour Pork and Kung Pao Chicken.  I asked where they appeared on the menu and she pointed; those words never appeared but the items were there nonetheless. Lin struggled a bit with the chopsticks but did rather well.  My Kung Pao Chicken was fantastic!   Spent time talking with Ted and Brenda from Sussex at the next table.

Saturday, March 17 - Beijing

Forbidden CityThe bad news is that it was COLD and the smog was much worse, though given yesterday's visibility that's hard to believe.  The result is that the pictures are not what I'd like and we were REALLY cold.  The good news is that the day was fantastic.  We saw Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.   Huge is an insufficient word for each of them. 

It took hours to walk through the Forbidden City and we saw only a handful of its 999 rooms! This place is unbelievable!  Though the Summer Palace is several times larger than the Forbidden City, much of it is a lake so it doesn't seem so.  I wish the pix did justice to what we saw.

Summer PalaceWe are with a really nice group of people and Matthew, our guide is great.  He's knowledgeable, has a good sense of humor and an excellent command of English. 

The highlight of the day was when I slipped and went flat on my face on the stone floor in the Forbidden City.  It hurt terribly when I did it but nothing seems permanently damaged other than my pride.  I learned later, though, that I'd smashed my small camera.

The night's forecast was for rain, bringing hope for clearer air in the morning.

We eventually warmed up, took a nap, then showered and dressed for dinner.  Dinner was buffet at the hotel and was excellent.  We ate alone but ended up sitting and talking with Ted and Brenda until after 9:30.  As often happens, we were among the last out of the restaurant!

Sunday, March 18 - Beijing

Sacred RoadThe wake-up call was for 5:30; ugh!  It had snowed during the night though not a lot.  It was, however, enough to clear the air substantially.  The day's program was to first visit the Great Wall, then a jade factory where we'd have lunch (and shop, of course), then see the Sacred Road of the Ming Tombs.  We set out for the Wall but the highway was blocked due to snow in the mountains so, rather than sit in a traffic jam, we exited the highway and reversed the itinerary, heading for the Sacred Road.  We didn't visit the Ming tombs themselves but a walk of a kilometer or so along the  sacred road leading to them was fantastic, made more scenic by the snow. 

The jade factory was, of course, a tourist trap but was still quite well done.  Linda naturally bought a pendant and earrings as well as some goodies for the kids.  Lunch was Chinese-style served upstairs.

The Great Wall The very good news is that by the time we reached the Great Wall at Badaling, the sun had come out and visibility was superb!  Given the weather we'd had to date (and which we'd have later), we were especially lucky to have arrived at the Wall at a perfect time.

Us on the WallWe both climbed up onto the wall and, as usual, I walked a lot farther than Linda did.  My knee was killing me, perhaps a result of yesterday's fall.  Some of the path was steps and some ramp.  The steps were of varying rises and runs and often there was no railing or there was snow near the railing, making it inaccessible. A bit further along, I could see that the snow had not been cleared and my knee was killing me so I headed back.  By that time, the ceiling had started to descend and visibility deteriorated.  We were to meet at a shop (of course) and while there I saw a Lehigh cap.  Turns out the wearer, Tony, is a CE who graduated in from Lehigh with me in 1969!  That may go to the top of my rather long list of strange meetings in distant places.

Beijing DuckWe had signed up for a Beijing Duck dinner and the Beijing Opera.  The dinner was, of course, Chinese style and  the duck was fantastic!!  The opera was, to put it bluntly, horrible!!  This was 90 minutes of the sounds of  tortured cats and banging pots and pans.  It was downright painful!  Oh, well, now we can say we're familiar with it.  I'm glad I did it and happier than I need not do so again!

Monday, March 19 - Beijing & Xi-an

Visibility was back to its former poor state, making it plain how lucky we'd been yesterday at the Wall.  The day started with a trip to a silk rug factory.  The production process was the same as what we had seen at the school in Egypt but the kids in Egypt were a LOT faster!  Of course there was a store and lots of time was available for spending money.  Furtunately, we resisted the strong urge to spend almost 5 grand on a tiny rug.

Leaving the rug factory, we had a visit to a hutong (neighborhood) where we had a ride in a pedal rickshaw and a visit to a private home.  At the home, there was a girl painting small bottles from the inside.  We bought a bottle for the breakfront and something else we'll use as a Christmas ornament.

Security at the Beijing airport was ridiculous; they just about totally emptied my backpack and yet left my roll-aboard untouched.  The flight to Xi'an was about 90 minutes and the ride into town took over an hour. 

The Crowne Plaza in Xi'an is only a few months old and perhaps the nicest hotel I've stayed at, at least on the surface.  Lobby was fantastic as was the room.  The only real problem was a banging noise that I'd hoped was due to construction that would stop at night.  It didn't.

There was an optional dinner and Tang Dynasty show for 490 RMB.  Before my retiremsnt, I had 11 softare developers working for me in an office in Xi'an. Though I'm no longer with the company, I was eager to make contact and arranged to have dinner with Jim, our top guy there, and his wife, Linda.  Interestingly, Jim booked the same event as the tour offered and it was only 300 RMB per person.  Dinner was dumplings; they were endless and delicious.  I had feared that the show might be like the opera but it was not; it was WONDERFUL!  More like a Vegas Show. 

Afterwards, Jim drove us through his beautiful city.

Tuesday, March 20 - Xi'an & arrival at the ship in Chongqing

We had a little extra time this AM, getting to the bus at 9:00. 

The main reason we were in Xi'an, of course, was to see the terra cotta warriors.  These things are amazing.  We had several hours to visit, helped with the local guide, William.  William was amazingly enthusiastic and a joy to be with.

Leaving the warriors, we went to the airport where we had a Chinese-style lunch before tackling security,  Fortunately, we didn't have the ordeal we'd endured in Beijing.

It was 7:00 by the time we arrived at the dock in Chongqing and we had to descend 200 steps and cross a pontoon bridge to get to the ship.  I hired a local guy to carry my backpack and the two roll-aboards.  I paid more than necessary at 30 RMB but 5 bucks is still cheap!  There are some in our group who have trouble walking and I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for them but somehow everyone made it.

The ship is beautiful; quite new and very modern.  Dinner was at 7:30 so we had little time to get ready.  Service and food were both excellent.  The ship pulled out at 9:30 and we rushed to the observation deck to witness the departure and enjoy the beautiful lights of the city. After that we went to the lounge with Jeff and Sue but danced only one nightclub two-step before giving up. 

Because we were able to open the doors to the balcony and get fresh air, we slept well for the first time on the trip.

Wednesday, March 21 - Fengdu

I was up at 7:00 and read for a while.  By 8:00, Lin was up and we went down for breakfast, then loafed, sorted pictures and wrote until lunch.  There were two tour possibilities included, the Snow Jade cave or a city tour.  The cave tour was reported to involve 800 steps and my knee was still uncertain. The city tour sounded more interesting than standard fare so we took it, leaving about 2:00.  Our first stop was at a city park where a group of old folks (read: our age and up) entertained us with  traditional instruments, singing and dance.  It was obvious by their faces that they were enjoying it as much as we were. 

Next stop was just a shopping center and all the shops were really for young girls so that part was a bit of a waste. 

The last stop was at a food market and that was very interesting.  Terry, the local guide appears to really love her city and spent a lot of time explaining the various foods and how they are used.  A lot was said about medicinal uses even to curing cancer!

We were back by about 4:00 and had a "Coke Zero" on the foredeck while watching people descend the 100 steps to the boat.

Dinner was Chinese style with some Sichuan dishes that were great!  There was a show of minority dances and costumes that was quite good. Afterwards we sat in the Emerald lounge with Ray and Sharon and danced until almost midnight.

Thursday, March 22 - Shibaozhai

We were awakened at 7:00 by the whistles heralding our departure from Fengdu.  I had fried Sichuan noodles for breakfast and they were GREAT!  Afterwards we both attended a lecture on Chinese culture and I attended a Mandarin class.

Our major activity today was a visit to Shibaozhai, which literally means "precious stone fortress".  There is a large protruding stone called Jade Seal Hill upon which sits a temple built in 1750 during the Qing ("Ching") Dynasty.  The temple at the top of the rock here was built in 1750, during the Qing Dynasty.  At that time, people had to get to it by climbing the cliff using holes in the rock and a chain to hang onto.  The pagoda was built in 1819 and provides steps, though they are steep and with questionable handrails.

ShibaozhaiThe ship approached Shibaozhai shortly before lunch and I went on deck to get some pictures of the pagoda.  Visibility was again very poor and it was raining lightly.  While we were eating lunch we docked next to another ship so we'd have to get ashore through it as we'd done in Egypt.   Our group went ashore at 2:30 and had to run the gauntlet up a long road to town while staving off countless people selling stuff. The venors here were not nearly as aggressive as those in Egypt, however.

ShibaozhaiThe river's water level here rose by some 40 meters due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and a coffer dam was build around the pagoda to protect it.  As a result, the pagoda is now on an island and access to it is across a suspension footbridge that does a fair bit of moving under the feet. I, of course, climbed up through the pagoda while Linda waited in the rain.

ShibaozhaiBack on the ship, we had a drink in the Observation Lounge with Jock, Bonnie and Al, then dressed for dinner.

The program for the evening was bingo and Linda and I are not nearly old enough for that so after dinner we went to the Emerald Lounge just to chill.  No one was there but soon another couple came in and the man started playing the piano; he was GREAT.

At 9 the duo came in.  Jeff and Sue arrived shortly thereafter and sat with us.  Though a few others filtered in, it was only the 4 of us dancing.  Because we had to be up early, we quit at 10:00.

Friday, March 23 - First two of the Three Great Gorges, the Lesser Gorges and the locks at the Three Gorges Dam

Qutang GorgeToday was the day we entered the Three Gorges and the weather was perfect for it!  I set a wakeup for 6:30, ate a quick breakfast and was on the foredeck just as we approached Qutang Gorge, the first and most beautiful of the greater gorges.  Bonnie & JockConsidering how little we've seen of the sun on this trip, to have it for both the Great Wall and the Gorges is truly a blessing!  Here the river is relatively narrow, hemmed in by towering cliffs and mountains on both sides.  Though I had on several layers of clothing it was still cold but a little discomfort was a small price to pay for these sights.  The bundled-up crowd on deck was reminiscent of Glacier Bay.  I took lots of pictures, of course, but none do justice to this place.

Lesser GorgesAt about 9:00 we docked on Wushan and transferred onto one of two smaller boats for a 3 hour visit to the lesser gorges on the river Daning.  Though smaller, these gorges are even more striking than Qutang and the sun was even brighter so the scenery was breathtaking.  I spent most of my time standing on deck, of course, so by the time we returned to our ship for lunch, my legs were killing me. 

We had a leisurely lunch with Ray, Sharon, Yvonna and a Japanese couple, then went to the Observation Lounge for a lecture on the dam.  Afterwards, Lin took a nap while I edited pictures and wrote.  During this time we passed through Wu Gorge.  It is as impressive as the Qutang but visibility had deteriorated a bit.

We approached the Three Gorges dam as we finished eating dinner so we all hurried on deck to see the process.  There are two parallel sets of locks here so normally one set takes boats down while the other takes them up.  However, one set is currently under repair so boats go up and down on alternate days.  Three Gorges LockThere are 5 chambers in each set, and the total elevation change is about 300 feet.   The chambers are huge and in our case, held 6 large vessels.  We were first in and the process of getting everyone in place took a LONG time.  As soon as the doors closed, we headed for the Emerald Lounge to dance.  We'd become friendly with Josephine, the singer, and she sat with us for a while as her partner played.  She is a bit uncomfortable being on the boat and was especially nervous descending through the locks.  We were seated by a window so the rapid descent was very apparent.  I went on deck to see the doors open and watch us move into the next chamber.  We danced a bit and went down shortly after 11:00.  At that time we had still not cleared the locks; I'm told the whole process takes about 4 hours.

Saturday, March 24 - The Three Gorges Dam and Xiling Gorge

Us at the Three Gorges DamWe set the wake-up for 7:00 but I was up a bit earlier.  The weather once more was perfect;  the local guide said it was the best it had been in months.  After breakfast we disembarked and again ran the gauntlet for the busses.  Actually, while the people are pushy, they are not in the same league as the Egyptians and most will back off pretty readily. 

Running the gauntletToday's visit was to the dam itself though for security reasons we could not go inside.  We got some great views of both the dam and the locks, though.  Back in town, we ran the gauntlet again but actually enjoyed it so much we did another round trip to the bus and back.

We were supposed to leave the dock at noon but, apparently for flow control into the next locks, we didn't leave until 5:00.  In the meantime, we sat on deck until the heat got to us, then Lin went to a demonstration of dumpling cooking and it was I who took a nap; a reversal of our normal routine. I must be getting old.

Xiling GorgeLater we went to a promotional presentation on Viking and a Mahjong lesson.  While we were playing Mahjong we entered the Xiling Gorge.  It is yet another moving site so I divided my attention a bit between it and the game. 

We approached the Gezhouba dam and locks as we sat down to dinner. However, we tied up along some barges, apparently for spacing and we were in the Emerald by the time we went through the single chamber.  Going by the markings on the wall, the drop was about 80 feet!  Funny, when we got to the lounge, someone was in "our" seats so I wasn't happy.  We sat with Jeff & Sue and, when the folks in "our " seats left, we all moved.  Danced until 11:15.

Sunday, March 25 - A visit to the Viking School at Jingzhou

Another 7:00 wake-up for a departure at 9:00.  Today's program was a visit to one of the three schools supported in part by Viking.  Two are here in Jingzhou; we visited #2.  As we approached the bus, Matthew was waiting for me with 32 AA batteries that he'd asked a local guide to get for me since I was 3/4 of the way through the 48 I'd brought with me.

The cities we visited further up-river were all new because they were built to house the people displaced by the dam.  Being below the dam, Jingzhou is older and certainly not a rich city. We drove past more poor conditions than we have seen on this trip though nothing like the poverty I'd seen in India or Africa.  The drive to the school was interesting in any case. 

The school is right in town.  Upon arrival we were greeted by a band and then entertained by young girls singing and dancing, and others playing drums.   Afterwards, we were split up with each guide's "flock" going into a different school room.  Our group visited a 4th grade class and as soon as we entered the room, each of us was "claimed" by one of the students and ushered to his or her desk to sit.  My "host" was a young boy who was very obviously proud and happy.  He showed me his English workbook and read a bit to me from it.  Before I left, he gave me a picture he had drawn.  This was, for me, one of the highlights of the trip.

Linda's new friendAs we got to the ship, we met a young college girl who was hanging around to practice her English. We'd been warned that some people did this as part of a scam to get you to give money but that was not the case here; she was just a nice kid. I snapped her picture with Linda.

The ship departed at noon just as lunch was starting.  Afterwards, I went on deck to read while Lin took a nap.  It's nice to have an afternoon with no program worth attending so we can just chill.

We learned at dinner that Al and Barbara, with whom we'd sat at the duck dinner in Beijing, were married in Camp Hill, PA the same day we were married in Scranton.  They remember how hot it was that day, also.  Given that Barbara's sister, Carol, was born in Scranton and lived only a few blocks from where I grew up, this is really weird.

Monday, March 26 - Yue Yang

When we awoke at 7:00 this morning, we were docked at the city of Yue Yang in Hunan province.  This was the birthplace of Chairman Mao and make no mistake about it, he is still very much revered throughout China.  This is a very busy city actually set on Dong Ting Lake, adjacent to the river.  Outside our balcony are countless ships, large and small, mostly bulk carriers and there are many conveyors moving materials from small ships onto large ones that appear to be ocean-going.  The level of activity is astounding. 

At 9:00 we left for a visit to Yue Yang Tower and the park that surrounds it.  The very attractive park houses a reproduction of the historic tower.  We had tea in a garden while listening to typical Chinese music.  It would have been infinitely better without jackhammers going just outside the garden wall!  Several folks in our group were absent due to sickness;  seems to be quite a bit of it going around.

After lunch I took another Chinese lesson, then read on deck while Lin went to a lecture on "China Today".  I poked my head in near the end.  We're amazed at how openly they discuss the country's problems and shortcomings.  Sharon and Ray

This was Ray's 75th birthday so we were invited to his party along with Jamie & Wei Jen and Judy and Dwayne.  Dinner was Chinese style.  I thought it was excellent but some did not.  It was a little sparse, however.

WuhanAfterwards, of course, we danced in the Emerald.  Sue was one of the people down sick today.  We saw her in the dining room at dinner but she wasn't in the lounge.  As were were there we reached the city of Wuhan.  What a surprise that was.  Knowing it's a major steel production center, I really expected to see the Pittsburgh of the 60's but it was lit up like Las Vegas.  What a beautiful sight!

Tuesday, March 27 - Wuhan

This morning's activity was a visit to the Hubei Provincial Historical Museum.  We thought about blowing it off but didn't.  The museum was huge and our visit was confined to the artifacts from the recently discovered tomb of Marquis Yi.  It was somewhat interesting but we did not enjoy it as much as many did.  We were entertained by a performance on a set of bronze bells that was a reproduction of the set found in Yi's tumb.  Not terribly melodious but certainly unique.

After lunch on the ship we were free to walk into town where there is a pedestrian shopping area.  We need deodorant and hairspray and wanted short-sleeved shirts due to the unseasonably warm weather so, at Matthew's suggestion, we walked to a Wal-Mart.  Finding what we wanted and figuring out how to buy it was a real treat but the clerks were very eager to help.  The walk was much longer than we bargained for and Lin was really suffering by the time we got back to the ship so we we spent the rest of the afternoon resting in the room.

Right before dinner we tried to call our grandson, Noah, to wish him Happy Birthday but got Steve's voicemail. After dinner we went to the Emerald and were joined by Brenda and Ted.  Because Linda's feet were still sore, we didn't dance at all and left a bit after 11.

Wednesday, March 28 - Down day in Jiu Jiang

Jiu JiangToday's itinerary was an 8-hour trip to see a porcelain factory.  It involved a 2-hour bus ride each way and we were beat so we opted out.  I'd like to have seen the process but 4 hours on a bus was just too big an investment.

We slept until almost 8 and then tried several times before and after breakfast to call Noah but could not get a cell connection.  Probably because we'd bought the short-sleeve shirts, the temperature was back down to sweater weather.  The morning was spent reading, writing, editing photos and generally loafing.  After lunch we walked the short distance into the city, walked on the pedestrian street for a while and then visited a shop that had a supermarket like Wegman's on the first floor and a department store on the second. 

Back on the ship, we read for a while on deck before the ship's departure.

After dinner we attended an entertaining "Crew Cabaret": where waiters, cabin stewards and others did the singing and dancing, then went to the Emerald Bar to dance a bit.  Quit shortly after 11:00.

Thursday, March 29 - Mount Jiuhua

Pig's EarsSadly, this was the last full day on the ship.  It was rather foggy this morning and there was virtually no river traffic.  I learned later that we were on a small side channel.  Lin went to a departure briefing after breakfast.  It's terrible to have to think of such a thing; this cruise has been great.  After that we attended a lecture by a professor from the Buddhist monastery we'd be visiting later.  Between that and lunch we started the packing process.  Ugh!

Lunch was a treat.  In addition to the normal fare, they had jellyfish salad, pig's ear, pig's tail, thousand year old eggs and a variety of less exotic but still excellent Chinese dishes.  They also were making noodles on the spot.  I enjoyed all of it!

The trip today was to a Buddhist monastery and it was fascinating.  The monastery is on top of a high mountain and the ride up was a real treat!  There are many temples there and I visited several.  It was raining on and off and the weather generally sucked but the visit was still great.  The "picture that got away" was a Buddhist monk on his cell phone.  Unfortunately, the call ended before I could get to the camera. Damn!

Lin had an interesting experience when she was sitting on a wall with another woman from the ship. A young Chinese girl came and asked (wordlessly) whether she could have her picture taken between them.  Given a "yes", she sat between the women and put her arms around them both like old friends while the photo was taken.  Then one by one each of her many friends did the same thing.  Linda said she was ready to start charging!  The fact is that Western travelers are still relatively rare here.

There was a cocktail party before the captain's dinner but we caught only the last 30 minutes.  Dinner was magnificent; I had lobster thermador.  The last night is always tough.  Though we'll see some of these folks in Shanghai, some we'll never see again and we've become close to several.  As they say here, that's the Yin and Yang of it.

We danced just a bit before going down to get some rest.

Friday, March 30 - Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai

Honestly, this day sucked; starting bad and going downhill.  Viking, who has done a fantastic job in all areas, has an absolutely horrible way of ending the cruise.  On ocean ships, the bit about settling your bill at the end has been gone for decades. Just as in a hotel, you give them your credit card at the beginning and if you are OK with the bill they slip under your door in the wee hours of departure day, you walk away.  Here I had to stand in line for 1/2 hour to pay my bill and pick up our passports.  I was lucky; one guy told me he was there for an hour! People were NOT happy.

The cruise ended in Nanjing, far from our hotel in Shanghai and the trip was by bus. It was "advertised" as a 4-hour bus ride. That would have made for a hard day even without the traffic, the rain and several stops along the way. 

Canal in SuzhouFirst item on the agenda was a ride on a "dragon boat" on one of the canals in Suzhou.  They say this is the "Venice of Asia" but it's certainly worse for the comparison.  Washing in the canalWere told the housewives are fortunate to be able to just step out their back door and wash their clothes, dishes and vegetables in the canal.  Yummy!

After a Chinese-style lunch at a local restaurant, we stopped at a silk factory in Suzhou.  The tour was interesting but of course we had LOTS of time to shop in their very extensive store. 

Fisherman's GardenFinally, we visited the very beautiful "Fisherman's Garden", part of which, we were told, has been duplicated in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY.

By the time we reached Shanghai, Friday afternoon rush hour was in full swing and we didn't arrive at the hotel until a tad after 7:00.  By my math, that made for a 10-hour trip, not the advertised 4.  Worse, the rain and fog meant we could see virtually nothing the whole way.  Certainly the rain could not be helped but the elimination of some of the stops and a consequent earlier hotel arrival would have made for a much nicer day.

The Westin Shanghai Bund Center is ultra modern and we'd been upgraded to a suite in the Golden Tower.  It was utterly fantastic and surpassed the Crowne Plaza in Xi'an to take top slot of hotels in which I've stayed.  Interestingly, my list of the six top hotels in which I've stayed puts them all in Asia - Singapore, India, and China.

Dinner was buffet style at the hotel.  The remarkable part for me was the seafood bar including TONS of sushi and sashimi.  I pigged out on my favorite; tuna sashimi. 

I talked to my youngest son, Eric, a bit on Skype, did a little photo editing, and hit the rack at 10:00.

Saturday, March 31 - Shanghai

If yesterday was Yin, today was overwhelmingly Yang.  By the time we awoke, the miserable rain had been replaced by a clear blue sky.  The day's program was to be a full-day tour including the Bund, another garden and the Shanghai Museum in addition to lunch.  I'd told Matthew he might not see us as we were tired and really didn't need to see yet another museum.  Apparently he'd gotten other sentiments to that effect so he was scheduling the museum after lunch and would drop us off at the hotel prior to going there.  As a result, after the buffet breakfast we boarded the bus at the appointed 8:30.  BOY, am I glad we did; it was a great day!!

Us in ShanghaiFirst stop was at the Bund, a very short distance from the hotel.  We crossed the promenade and had lots of time to absorb the magnificent view and take photos. 

I admit that, having visited a garden just yesterday, I was initially not excited at the prospect of a visit to the Yu Yuan Garden but it was beautiful.  The bus left us off several streets away and we walked through a very scenic shopping area to a plaza in front of the entrance.   Traditional wedding dressThe garden itself was once a private residence and is breathtaking.  I'd read before we came about these gardens and this really brought it home.  Every time we turned a corner, another breathtaking view appeared.  Even with all the tourists, it was so very peaceful.  I can't imagine how wonderful it must have been to have called this home.  I've decided that when I win the PowerBall, I'll build a copy!

Matthew apologized that we'd have to spend 1/2 hour getting to the restaurant but I'm glad we did.  Tang Yuan Restaurant is on the other side of the river so, for one thing, we got to see the contrast since that side is largely made up of the facilities of large global companies and residences of the expat community.  The restaurant was wonderful.  I was initially a bit put off that we entered by way of a gallery of embroidered works of art all of which "just happened to be" for sale.  However, this stuff was absolutely magnificent. Prices, of course, were astronomical but I may spend some of that PowerBall money here in order to decorate that new garden home. 

Lunch was, of course, Chinese-style and eaten surrounded by the embroidery.  To top it off, it was delicious; certainly among the best meals we've had here.

Nanjing RoadAs promised, we were dropped back at the hotel and, after leaving the jackets in our room we walked to Nanjing Road, a pedestrian shopping street.  Many stores are pretty high end though the ubiquitous GAP and similar stores were there as well.  I was able to re-stock my battery supply with another dozen, bringing my total bought for this trip to 92!

We were back an hour or so later and Linda rested while I wrote and edited pictures.  After yesterday, I was ready to head home; now I'm re-energized.

Acrobat showWe met at 5:30 for a so-so dinner followed by a phenomenal acrobatic show that was performed in a theater at the Ritz Carleton.  It was 90 minutes of pure joy.  My only disappointment is that there were no DVDs (or anything else) for sale.

Brenda, Ted, Linda & meBack at the hotel, we said good-bye to some folks that now feel like old friends.  That part sucked.  I walked to the Bund to get night pictures but my timing was terrible.  This is Earth Day and OUR hotel said it would turn off non-essential lights from 8:00 to 9:30.  It was 9:30 when I left the hotel so I figured I was safe but apparently it was a rolling blackout and the lights went out just as I arrived.  Bummer.

Sunday, April 1 - Shanghai to Guilin

Those of us going on to Guilin and Hong Kong were instructed to have our bags out by 9:00 and to be on the bus at noon.  We set the wake-up for 7:30 but were awake before that.  Packed and went to breakfast at 9:00.  Had an opportunity to loaf all morning and were on the bus at noon.  Went first to lunch at a place that was only so-so, then went directly to Pudong airport.  it was a long drive through an area that is very westernized. 

The flight was about 2-1/2 hours long and then there was the drive into Guilin so it was 8:00 by the time we arrived at the Shangri-La Guilin.  LOTS of our people were sick and the bus sounded like a TB ward.  Very disconcerting!

The ride in from the airport was interesting; though it was dark, we could still see the magnificent mountains, some of which were illuminated.  Beautiful hotel.  Only 7 stories high due to local regs but very spread out.  We were greeted warmly by swarms of attendants with hand towels, iced tea, etc.  Keys were all ready and we were quickly in the room. 

Guilin at nightMatthew told us the restaurant might be crowded with Chinese since it was Sunday. What an understatement!  More like a Friendly's.  The good news (for me, at least) was that there was a variety of food including Indian (complete with Indian chef!)  We ate with Bonnie and Jock. 

After dinner, a bellman led me out back through a garden so I could get photos of the river and a pagoda that was illuminated.  Hit the rack at 10.

Monday, April 2 - Guilin & Hong Kong

When we had our family vacation at Epcot in 1987, I was struck by visions in three wrap-around movies in the "World Showcase"; Mont St. Michel in France, Hotel Frontenac in Quebec, and the strange rounded mountains in China.  I vowed we'd see Mont St. Michel and we did so in 1989.   I was curious about the Frontenac and we visited it with my Mom and Dad in 2004.  It never occurred to me that I might see the mountains in the Li River valley but that's what we did today.  The air could have been clearer for the pics but this is an area that gets a lot of rain so we were thankful for what we got.

This was China's Memorial Day holiday and Guilin was full of Chinese as well as foreign tourists. Consequently, when we got to the dock in Guilin, it was mobbed.  There were, however, many boats and they seemed to all get off at 9:30, making for a virtual parade. 

Cormorant fishermanThe Li River valley is all I'd expected and, though we had assigned seating on the lower deck, I spent almost the entire 4 hours standing on the top one. 

Though a buffet lunch was served, we'd been warned to avoid it so had made up sandwiches at breakfast and ate them instead.  In addition to the large boats, there were countless small rafts, each carrying a few people, some of whom were engaged in the water fights I'd read about.  They were having even more fun than we were.  It looked to me, though, that most of the rafts were "plastic bamboo" rather than the real thing.  There were also mobs of people in the towns we passed and others at beaches along the way.  Our local guide, Sonny, was excellent.

Eventually we disembarked in Yangshou where we had a bit more than an hour free.  After walking around a bit, Lin and I went to a restaurant near the meeting place to rest and have a drink.  I wanted to sit on the terrace but there were no tables free.  When I started to turn away, the hostess talked to a young Chinese woman who was eating alone.  Suddenly we were seated with her.  She spoke no English but was friendly nonetheless.

It took us another 90 minutes on the bus to get to the Guilin airport.  Unfortunately the plane was an hour late taking off so it was 10:00 by the time we reached the Shangri-La in Kowloon.  Then we had to eat. The local guide (another Matthew, A.K.A. Fan) recommended Rocco's down the street where we had an excellent PIZZA.  It's nice to have western food for a change! 

Tuesday, April 3 - Hong Kong

Viking's last commitment to us was a 1/2 day tour of Hong Kong.  We'd agreed that 9:00 would be a good start time.  First stop was Victoria Peak.  When I went there in 1994, I went by funicular and the fog was so thick I was lucky to find my way back to the station.  Today we went by bus and the visibility was pretty good, though not spectacular.

JumboFrom there we went to Aberdeen Harbor for a sampan ride among the houseboats. There are FAR fewer boats in the harbor than when I was last here but, then, that was 18 years ago!

Third stop was the obligatory commercial break; a visit to a jewelry "factory" that just happened to have a showroom that we were given lots of time to "enjoy."

Stanley MarketLast and best was Stanley Market.  I'd been told that it is now a mall but that's untrue; it's essentially what I saw in '94; a warren of alleys and shops.  We had a drink by the water's edge with Judy and Tom.  I wanted to let the bus go without us and spend more time there but Lin was eager to move on and reminded me that our coats were on the bus.  It was probably 2:00 when we returned and we ate again at Rocco's. I had penne arrabiata and it was great.  Lin had a Panini.

Loafed and slept until 7:00 and then walked to Wooloomooloo, a steak house on the corner, for dinner.  I had filet and Lin had peppercorn steak.  We ate outside; nice view but, of course, noisy.

Wednesday, April 4 - Hong Kong

Victoria HarborThis was an entirely free day and, of course since I could sleep as long as I wanted, I was awake at 5:30.  Forced myself to stay in bed 'til 7:00, then read on the computer 'til Lin got up at 9:00.  After buffet breakfast we packed and headed out without a plan other than to shop for pearls.  After getting them (at Rio Pearls) and dropping them off in the room,  we came across Judy and Tom who were about to catch a hotel shuttle to the Star Ferry so we went with them.  The ferry was fun but I'd hoped to get a rickshaw ride in Central.  All I saw there were rickshaws FOR SALE!  KowloonWalked enough to get frustrated and came back to Kowloon, then walked up and down Nathan Road looking for polo shirts for the kids as well as lunch.  Ended up having lunch at Murphy's Irish Pub!  My cottage pie, washed down with a Boddingtons' wasn't half bad.

The light showHad a hell of a time getting the shirts but finally did and loafed some more before meeting Matthew and the group for an "off the program" walk to the embankment in front of the Inter-Continental to see the magnificent laser show. 

Dinner was at Tapas in the hotel and we were in bed shortly after 10:00.

Thursday, April 5 - Hong Kong to home

Wake-up was a painful 5:45 and the bags were out before the 6:30 deadline.  I'd done some hyperventilating about the fact that we were leaving the hotel at 7:30 for a 10:25 flight given that Matthew said we should be there 3 hours early and it was an hour drive to the airport.  The math didn't seem to work for me but, knowing that Viking are old hands, I let it go.  It turns out we zipped to the airport and then through all the formalities.  We were seated at the gate an hour and 15 minutes after leaving the hotel!

The route homeThough we'd been upgraded to business class on the way over, it was steerage on the way back but we sprung for $175US each to get premium exit row seats.  Bonnie and Jock were with us and were flying business.  They graciously declined the opportunity to go to the premium lounge and sat with us as we waited to board.

We were a few minutes late off the gate but still arrived in Newark a tad early.  The flight, scheduled at 15-1/2 hours, wasn't as bad as I'd feared.  I actually slept about 2 hours which is a record for me; I guess the Xanax helped!  Linda didn't sleep at all.

For the car ride back home we had a substitute driver who turns out to have grown up in the same general area of Scranton we did and is related to some of our high school friends.  We spent the whole ride tripping down memory lane. 

Got home at 4:45 and promptly crashed.  I'd hoped to get to church since it was Maundy Thursday and I was supposed to sing but we slept too long.  Oh, well…

I can never come up with a good answer when asked which was my favorite trip but this was definitely one of the best. The country was beautiful, the people were warm and friendly, the tour company and our guide, Matthew, were outstanding, our fellow travelers were wonderful to be with and Lin and I never had a tense moment between us. Oh, and I didn't have to worry about the office! What else can you ask for?