A Cruise to China (Part 4)
Board: Macro Economics
[Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]
Forgot to mention – the ubiquitous gasoline brand seems to be Sinopec which I thought was a cool combo name. Also forgot to mention one aspect of the massage we got: The foot massage included, not only the expected rubbing, but also slapping on the soles of the feet, presumably to numb them for the use of a couple of rubber tipped mallets like drum sticks all over the feet and lower legs. We’ll likely look for another in Shanghai.
The Chinese jammed the internet connection from the ship (along with Fox TV, but curiously not CNN) while we were local to Beijing. The connection from the terminal was stone slow, but better than the zippo available from the ship.
The ship apparently lost a passenger somewhere in Beijing – he wandered off leaving his identification papers in his jacket on the tour bus. I suspect that the Chinese police will likely locate him pretty easily. In addition the ship’s piano player was mugged at knife-point getting money out of an ATM. A cab full of Indonesian seamen apparently had some problem with the cab driver trying to charge them double and then locking them into the cab and driving them off. Situational awareness is very important when traveling. There is little chance of my blending in as a local when traveling in China (as I’m a foot taller than most denizens, not to mention other obvious differences), but trying to avoid either offering to be a prime target by carrying a lot of money (or even displaying smaller amounts at ATM’s which are in out of the way places), wearing jewelry (or anything more than minimalist watches), flashing fancy cameras, etc. The most important aspect is to try to be aware of those around you (a bit difficult in crowded countries like China, but crowds are your friend as well. Crowds in China are not trustworthy protection if you have a problem. I have seen bodies (defined as dead people) completely ignored by passerby’s. We generally carry copies of our passport (and visa, if appropriate) unless we are crossing borders. We take enough cash to cover our immediate needs – taxis, subways, small meals, small purchases – an ATM card (selected to minimize fees when using foreign machines) for larger needs and a credit card (again chosen to eliminate currency conversion fees) for any major items which might be desired (so far, this trip, this has not been used). This method also reduces the amount of foreign currency left when exiting each country. Keeping a little bit doesn’t hurt if you ever intend on returning (and avoids the haircut of currency conversion commissions), but there is always a risk that currencies will change and it will turn into useless toilet paper before you return.
Traffic rules are suggestive only and it is not unusual to see a vehicle pull into the opposing lane of traffic, go through a red light and make an illegal left turn. Pedestrians are just cannon fodder in this environment. Many of the traffic lights not only have countdown clocks on green, but also on red before they turn yellow/the green. This allows drivers to pop into first gear and cross the starting line as the light turns. This frequently turns the +/- few seconds of a change into a no-man’s land of vehicles shooting past from all directions (where right of way is proportional to the size of one’s vehicle).
Before we get into the events at the stops, it is fair to say that the “day at sea” experience gets to be a routine.
Most people who take cruises end up taking excursions when they go ashore set up by the cruise liners. This provides them with a safe environment to see important sights at each stop (and the ship is generally willing to wait for their own tour if it is late). On the 30 +/- cruises we have been on we have taken exactly one of these cruise provided trips (to Herculaneum, Italy when the stop in Naples was just a few hours). Our rationale is that they are about double the price that one can generally buy the same tour in advance (nowadays over the internet). If one is willing to “roll their own” sightseeing the way we frequently do (hiring cabs, using tour guides and public transportation, renting a car and so on), they cost an order of magnitude more. When we were “married” in Korea, we had dropped into a park known for traditional folkloric events by taxi at the cost of a couple of bucks, while the audience consisted of shipmates – all of whom had purchased tours including the show. Our trip by bullet train to Beijing cost $20 each round trip for transportation and took an hour. The tour buses take 3 ½ hours each way and sit in traffic. If we wanted to see the Great Wall (not this trip – but have in the past), we would take the equivalent of a subway train for a couple of bucks. Similarly, the other major sights are reasonably priced. While I expect the prices are much higher now, in 2004, we were paying $109 a night at a new (Hyatt) five star hotel and scored a suite to boot. If you run the numbers and compare to the $2500 per couple cost of the equivalent cruise excursion it will cover the couple of meals in the restaurant of your choice. Specifically for Beijing if you are coming on a cruise ship: We saw people who hired private cars/guides to pick them up from the cruise ship. As I pointed out, the train is much faster and cheaper than driving – you will get more bang for your buck meeting your tour guide in the Beijing train station. The best place to meet is in front of a selected fast food restaurant (don’t worry – you’ll stand out ?). Pretty much the same can be said for pre and post cruise hotel stays (they normally charge per-person what you would pay for the room). On the other hand, their itineraries at least give an indication of the sights that someone thought might be interesting. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take them, but I am suggesting that there are alternatives. On our current ship, many of the elderly (especially if single) seem to take the tours as a part of their extended cruising lifestyle.
Oh yeah – FOOD. We have all heard about the unlimited supply of food on cruise ships. Generally, that statement is true. On the other hand, it makes sense to qualify this a bit. Unknown to many passengers, some cruise lines use a caterer to supply the food preparation and dining room stewards. This is not always bad as, for example, Apollo who (I believe) does both Seaborne and Celebrity is very good. Other cruise lines may not fare as well. Holland America, for example, runs its own kitchen and the food is very good. The days of the midnight buffets each night are over (and frankly I don’t miss them as they were a terrible waste of food. That said, there is generally food available somewhere on a ship virtually around the clock. While this may differ in detail on other ships, on ours there is a full deck buffet (with food paralleling the main dining room for each seating, but also with Asian, Italian, Salad, Sushi/sashimi and wider desert section as well) open from 6AM to midnight (with changing of food as the day progresses). There is also a formal dining room with waiter service for breakfast, lunch and two dinner seating’s with 5 star food. In addition, there is a separate Italian (waiter services) Italian restaurant (some ships have an Asian one as well, but not this one). There is a hamburger/shish kabob/taco/pizza grill open from 11:30AM-6PM. There is also a super fancy restaurant available (at additional cost) for lunch and dinner (as well as 24 hour free room service and a number of “snack” locations and coffee bars around the ship). OK, so there is constant food, but the thing that separates on cruise from the next is the variety. For example let’s take dinner: besides a number of different ornate appetizers offered each day, one can always ask for a jumbo shrimp cocktail. If one of the four soups (always including a cold fruit one and a cream of something) doesn’t please you, there is always French onion soup with a crust of melted cheese. There is always a choice of salad. For main courses, there is always a salad with meat (chicken fajita, salade niscoise, chef salad – whatever), a fried seafood dish and a completely different grilled one, two meat dishes (think fillet minion or rack of lamb) and at least one poultry dish (chicken, duck, goose, etc.). If that does not satisfy you, there is always grilled salmon, NY strip steak and roasted chicken available. Then of course there is desert which always has a Sunday, ice cream, a selection of cakes and tortes or (for the civilized) a cheese and fruit platter. If they don’t have something on the menu that you prefer, with a day’s notice, the kitchen can generally conjure it up for you. I won’t bore you with the equivalent list presented for breakfast and lunch, but as might be imagined, keeping one’s weight from getting out of control can be a bit challenging.
One of the defining features of Holland America is they use of Indonesians (exclusively) as cabin and dining room stewards and Filipinos as cooks and bartenders. Both groups are generally hired after having experience in 5 star hotels and the “help” will go out of their way to make sure your desires are anticipated and fulfilled. I will however qualify this by saying that the “product” on their longer cruises is superior to (but in a similar vein to) what they supply on the rest of their ships. It is not unreasonable to end up collecting a small vocabulary of Indonesian or Tagalog words.
October 18, 19, 2011 – Shanghai:
Shanghai is the antithesis of Maoist traditional Communist China. The newer architecture looks like every architect was given free rein to build the building of their dreams across the Huangpu River in Pudong – a former swamp which now forms the modern skyline of Shanghai (complete which the spaceship Pearl TV Tower. The original 1920-1930’s art deco/noveau buildings of the British Concession still line the Bund on the opposite side of the river from Pudong. These range from the decadence of the (now Fairmont) Peace Hotel to a bronze bull (presumably just a bit larger than the one gracing Wall Street in NYC) with well polished private parts to provide good luck to stock brokers - also seemed to be popular with tourist (lonely?) women.
The main shopping street (though markets abound throughout the city), is Nanjing Road. The stores along this high rent strip include many Western ones (including an Apple store who was already out of stock on the new iPhones at over $800US each), but all of them (Western or Chinese are posh). Inside some of the buildings are food malls with a variety of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other “Ajien” restaurants. Got some fish balls (think golf ball sized gefilta fish) with a squirt of hot sauce as a snack here. While the initial drop in a Tanggu taxi was 8 yuan and in Beijing was 10 (actually 12 with the fuel surcharge), in Shanghai the drop is 14 yuan – still not bad at about $2US. All Shanghai taxi’s are Volkswagen Sonata models (which may be unique to China). I saw a few more Buicks and a Ford, but again, most cars are German or Japanese brands (even a handful of Skoda’s). Just for the heck of it, we took the maglev train to the Pudong Airport and back – at over 300kph, an 8 minute ride. While, as a New Yorker, I am chauvinistic about subways, the Shanghai system is about the best I have ever seen. The trains are clean, fast, and silk smooth. Each car has lit station listings (in both Chinese and English) as well as LCD TV screens near each door. Announcements are made in both Chinese and English. The average ride is about 4 yuan ($.65US). The signage also includes floor arrow markings. All hand carried bags and parcels need to pass through a police supervised metal detector. Tickets are dispensed by touch screen vending machines which “speak” both English and Chinese. While complex (over a dozen lines), the system is relatively easy for a foreigner to use.
We took a shuttle bus from the ship to the tall memorial on the Bund. There is free internet (well, if you buy a coffee at Starbuck prices) at the Costa Café. From there we crossed the street to the Peace Hotel to peek at the lobby. This is an unbelievable experience as the lobby is art deco style and just to mention a typical adornment, has a large dome topped room where the walls are covered with bas-relief solid silver murals (each covering an entire wall). We walked up Nanjing Road with the intention of covering the 3 ½ mile (5KM) distance to the People’s Plaza where the Shanghai Museum is located. About halfway, the boss lost interest in shopping (well, more exactly her feet started complaining) and we taxied to the museum. This is a (free) place that one can spend a week in without getting bored, but after an hour we descended to the gift shop (looked, but didn’t buy) and then took a cab to Yu Yuan gardens in “The Old City”. These are pretty fabulous and there is a Daoist temple (Temple of the City God) nearby. So is a huge market (first consisting of a very old bazaar filled with items of little interest to tourists, then – led by the Hagen Das and Dairy Queen stores, a newer more interesting area. Ate assorted Shanghai style vegetable dumplings for lunch in the market.
A Note to gold bugs: Much has been said about the Chinese appetite for gold. This area of the city (and to a lesser extent Nanjing Road) has emporium after emporium dedicated to the sale of gold. These are as large (and as “tastefully” decorated) as American casinos and the larger ones seem to have at least 100 sales staff on the floor. They are all filled with golden objects of great variety. The other aspect that they all have in common is that they are completely empty of anything resembling a customer (not even browsers or tire kickers). Either the price of gold has gotten too high or there is some new game (real estate, stocks?) which has captivated the gambling spirit of the Chinese to the extent that they have abandoned a practice which at some recent time supported this infrastructure (or maybe the government tax laws changed). Rather than going directly to the ship, we went to a massage parlor to get another foot rub. This one only lasted an hour and while it was similar to the one we got in Beijing, didn’t include the hammering (and cot 48 yuan – about $7) – could get used to this at these prices ?.
The ship, for the evening’s entertainment brought a small handful of Chinese acrobats aboard for a stage show. For those who have never seen this sort of thing, other than suggesting you address this lapse in your background (must be something on U-Tube), I can only describe it as a combination of aerial acrobatics and contortion which has to be seen to be believed. As a side note, there was a small girl doing things to multiple hula hoops than amused this guy who could never keep a single one up for more than a couple of turns.
When night falls, Shanghai lights up. All of the legacy buildings of the Bund as well as the futuristic buildings in Pudong turn on an unbelievable array of colored spotlights, lasers, megatrons and assorted special effects that lights up both sides of the river. At ten o’clock, it’s like someone turned off the switch and they go dark all at the same time (presumably to save power).
We stayed overnight in Shanghai and, while we considered to take the train to Suzhou, we had previously visited it and felt it too risky (because if something went wrong, we might miss the ship’s departure, and because we had not prepared a list of waypoints written in Chinese to allow us to get there and back in a place that communications could be challenging). For those who have never visited this town, a train leaves Shanghai station hourly, the trip takes about 40 minutes and costs about 20 yuan each way. The city has some of the loveliest gardens in existence (my favorite is the “Master of the Nets” where the house is so integrated into the garden as to make a single composite). It is also known for embroidery technique which uses thread so thin and of so many different colors that images can seem photorealistic and even “feel” three dimensional (we picked up a couple of these things the last time we were in China). We ended up traveling around the city with two other couples. While enhancing things on the sociability side, this slowed down the sightseeing as they couldn’t agree (and, having been here before, I didn’t care all that much). In addition, one of them had a shopping oriented guide book and “had” to visit a number of specific shops selling stuff at such high prices that buying stuff was pretty much out of the question. We ended up (after checking a few other places) eating a rationally priced (95 yuan – about $14) place (the bistro at the Roosevelt House on the Bund) meal whose presentation (and taste) would compete with anything you would likely see in a Gourmet magazine or a TV cooking show. Tonight we sail after sunset so we will get another chance to enjoy the lightshow which is Shanghai.
The most popular purchases by the ship’s waiters and crew seem to be bicycles, small electric motorcycles and radio remote controlled helicopters (cost $15-30). The waiters (and apparently the ship’s captain) had a remote controlled helicopter race in the dining room after the guests left last night. While I was told the captain was able to fly “anything”, I was also told that “China won” as almost all of them failed and crashed.
Note on eating “street food” and in restaurants abroad: We’ve been traveling pretty extensively for a rather long time and can count the upset stomachs on one hand. There are a few rules that we follow in “third world” countries. First, (unless we know differently – some 5 star hotels and high end restaurants use distilled water) we don’t eat (or eat from) anything which has touched the water. That means no ice in drinks (and if we are paranoid, throw-away plastic or paper cups). It means that unless a fruit or vegetable has been pealed or boiled we don’t eat it (including salads). When we drink water, it’s bottled and we want to hear the snap of the top being opened (as tap water in bottles looks about the same). We don’t eat chopped meats and don’t eat meats of unknown origins. Generally I figure fish, eggs and poultry are fine (as are lamb and beef if they are well done). When choosing restaurants, we tend to go to ones crowded with locals, as well as not smelling bad and appearing clean. If all else fails, generally eating in a five star hotel is fine – expensive, but sometimes prudence wins out.
October 21, 2011:
Well, another sea day. Today (after looking at the effects of a few weeks on this tub in the mirror) I have decided to cut down on the orgy of eating on which I have been embarked. No more double deserts for me and I’m going to eat far less during the day (at least that’s the theory). I’ve kept up the twice daily dance lessons. I seem to do fine on the day they are taught, but my mind is so cluttered with dance routines that I’m still pretty useless on the dance floor (and still engaging in wrestling matches with the boss when I’m leading). I’m doing a bit of water color painting as well and, while I won’t ever compete with my sisters, I’m pretty pleased with the results (considering the last time I painted was probably in third grade elementary school). Sat in on a photo editing course (Microsoft has a classroom on the ship). Saw a lecture on Hong Kong – it doesn’t seem to have changed much since the last time we were there.
October 21, 2011 – Xiamen, China:
Well, this stop has few redeeming characteristics (except maybe a walk on ferry accessible, picturesque Gulang-Yu Island). I suspect that China forces cruise lines to stop at places like this. Actually, that was unfair – t had a perfectly respectable market street (wife bought some more hair clips and I bought a case of 750ml bottles of Tsing Tao beer to bring aboard.
Next stop is Hong Kong.