Yet Another Small City

Today we visited a Chinese City you probably never heard of but has a population over two million. Haikou is a port city on Hainan Island, the second largest island in China after Taiwan. Yes, they definitely consider Taiwan to be part of China. While it had only one skyscraper, it had an abundance of high rise apartment buildings. From our ship we could see over thirty construction cranes working on what appeared to be even more apartment buildings.

In the morning we took the shuttle to the old town. We spent most of our time on a pedestrian shopping street with European architecture and covered sidewalks to protect us from the light drizzle. They don’t have a lot of foreign tourists in town, so virtually no one spoke English. There was a woman in town with a nice camera who kept taking pictures of Susan. I suspect she is going to show up in an article on curly hair in the morning paper. There was a film crew and reporter filming our afternoon tour and interviewing some of our group. I think we were probably featured on the evening news in a piece about the Viking Sun.There was a band playing under the arcade. The instrument in the center is a hammered dulcimer. Ironically, I had heard a virtuoso performance on a 144 string hammered dulcimer the night before covering everything from classical to country.These are a few street scenes on the shopping street. The little boy in the window seemed fascinated by all the strange looking people below.A number of statues depicting life scenes were scattered along the street. Here Susan decides to lend a hand to the bargaining. You will notice she is holding a package. This took all her bargaining skills as the seller spoke no English, would not take credit cards, and was very reluctant to take dollars.We ventured off the shopping street into a more local area featuring food markets and a food court. The top picture appeared to be an assortment of goodies you could put in your soup. The bottom two pictures show how appetizing animal feet can be – both chicken and hog feet were for sale. The above sign was placed over each urinal in the food court rest room. I was very careful to avoid “litteting”.

The first stop on our afternoon tour was The Temple of the Five Officials. During the Tang and Song dynasties, disgraced court officials were expelled to the remote Hainan Island. The Temple was built in memory of five such officials who were banished between the ninth and twelfth centuries.The Temple consisted of a number of small buildings and gardens.The rack held small plaques with good wishes such as a long life, happiness, and good grades on tests. You could tie these to the branches on several trees to help make your wish come true.The employees of the Temple wore traditional dress.

Our other stop was the Hainan Museum which covered the history and culture of the island.The museum was huge and was undergoing a major renovation.This picture is not embroidered or painted, but is created by using pieces of rock.Some traditional furniture was included in the exhibits.I was interested that one of the indigenous groups used backstrap looms that were very similar to those used by the Mayans.

Susan is still looking frantically at every jewelry store she passes for cool earrings like these. They take the “ring” in “earring” to a whole new level! We now have two sea days before arriving at Ho Chi Minh City.

Hong Kong Wrap Up

Both our Hong Kong guides described their relationship with China as “One country. Two systems”. They have two separate currencies that are not tied to each other. They have two different leaders. China limits the number of children to two without paying a penalty while Hong Kong has no limits on the number of children. You go through immigration when passing between the two. These are only a few of the ways their systems differ.

We took the funicular to the top of Victoria Peak to take in the views. I remember doing this many years ago when I overnighted in Hong Kong on business. At that time, I remember walking around the top of the mountain to take in the views on all sides. Today, the area at the top of the funicular is much more commercial; and the path was not evident.This was the early morning view from the top of Victoria Peak. The column of smoke to the left is really a flaw in my camera that shows up when there is a clear blue sky in a certain area of the frame. It is much more pronounced in this panorama shot. I am getting a new camera when I get home.Susan took this typical view of me when I am on a tour.We also took a sampan ride around the Aberdeen area, which is noted for its floating village and restaurants.This is an example of one of the fishing boats that makes up the floating village.Looking out the front of the sampan you see an interesting mix of this huge traditional floating restaurant combined with modern boats and skyscrapers.You see a lot of red since the Chinese consider it to be a lucky color.

Because this is the first time Viking has ever been to these ports, we sometimes get special attention such as accompanying vessels and pier side entertainment. Viking also usually has the press and travel agents touring the ship during the day to promote future business. There is a photographer on our ship using drones, helicopters, and creative angles to get the beauty shots of the Viking Sun and the Sydney Opera House or the Shanghai Skyline that you will soon see in the Viking ads.

Karine Hagen is the daughter of the founder and chairman of Viking Cruises and is their public face in ads and educational videos.She has been on our cruise since the inauguration in Shanghai. Here she is at the Big Buddha with her own team of two videographers. I suspect you will see her online soon talking about the Big Buddha.I will bid farewell to Hong Kong with some pictures from our arrival and of the sunset the night we spent there.

One Big Buddha

On Monday we visited Lantau Island, the largest island in Hong Kong. It is over 50% national park.We first made a rest stop at a scenic beach. The temperature was only 70 F, so no one was there. If you can see a yellow line in the water, it is a shark net to protect the swimming area.This is a prison with a view – one of six prisons on the island.Our first stop was the fishing village of Tai O.Tai O had a lot of stores selling fish. A few were selling live fish from tanks, but most were selling dried fish or even dried fish heads. The top picture is dried puffer fish which was totally unappealing. The bottom picture is of a squid hung out to dry.Susan and Donna are standing in the doorway of the temple in Tai O. The bottom picture shows the intricate detail of the roofline.The Big Buddha is one of the main attractions of Lantau Island. At 112 feet tall it was once the tallest outdoor, sitting Buddha statue in the world. As our guide said, China wants to be number one in everything; so they built a bigger one. The statue is made of bronze and is more properly called the Tian Tan Buddha. Most people have to climb 268 steps to reach the base of the statue, but our bus was allowed to drop us off at the top.The Big Buddha is located in a beautiful mountain setting.Facing the Buddha at its base are six smaller bronze statues called “The Offering of the Six Deva”. These statues represent the characteristics you must achieve to obtain enlightenment.Adjacent to the Big Buddha is the Po Lin Monastery where we had a vegetarian lunch. The pictures above are from the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas. At first I thought there can’t possibly be that many until I realized that each of the wall tiles had a Buddha on it.We took a gondola from the Big Buddha area down to sea level with many beautiful views of Lantau Island. Hong Kong’s new airport is located there. Our ship is actually docked at the runway of the old airport. I remember the exciting views of the adjacent apartment buildings when I landed at that airport on business trips some years ago. The landing was so tricky that pilots had to have a special license to land there.

I will wrap up Hong Kong on the next blog.

A Piece of Jewish History

One of the excursions I did in Shanghai without Bruce was a Jewish Heritage Tour. Prior to the tour I knew very little of the relationship between Shanghai and the Jewish population there. I found out a surprising piece of history.

Starting in 1937 Russian Jews started to come to Shanghai. They came with their accumulated wealth and were very successful in their new homeland. The next wave of refugees came from Eastern Europe to escape the Holocaust. Shanghai became a city that accepted the “Stateless Refugees “.  Between 1933 and 1941 the ghetto absorbed 14000 Refugees. These Jews came with no possessions leaving everything behind. Per our Chinese Tour Guide, the people of Shanghai gave them food and basic jobs. He also pointed out that no wall or fence was needed around the ghetto since it was easy to identify the Jews from the city population. Our tour included walking around the streets where the ghetto was and visiting the Synagogue which now included the Jewish Refugees Museum.

When the war was over, the entire population of Jews in Shanghai (which they claim was up to 30000) immigrated to other countries – mostly Israel,US ,Canada and South America. There is no presence of Jews today and the Synagogue is a museum. The Chinese take great pride in pointing out how benevolent they were to the Jews when no other country opened their doors.

This picture is the site of what was the branch office of the JDC, NY based American Jewish Joint Distibution Committee. They helped the refugees find shelter upon arrival.

Typical Ghetto street.

Inside Ohel Moshe Synagogue

Front of the Synagogue.

Sent from my iPad

Something of a Dud

As I mentioned previously, Viking held the christening ceremony to officially name the Viking Sun on our first night in Shanghai.The event was held on a high tech stage with a covered viewing pavilion all constructed especially for the occasion. A red carpet led along the pier to a reception tent and beyond to the stage and seating area. All the world travelers were invited to a Chinese dinner in the low building to the far right of the picture.This is the rehearsal in the afternoon. There is a symphony orchestra in the lower area of the stands and the seating area is on the upper level.This is a better look at the building where our dinner was held. You can see all the tables awaiting us on the lower floor. While the building is only a five minute walk from the ship, the port authority required us to take a bus there despite the fact we could have walked across the dock where the VIP guests were arriving and through a door to access the building. The buses took about twenty minutes to deliver a load of passengers and return for the next load. As a result, it was several hours before everyone got transferred to the venue. It was necessary for us to eat elsewhere so Viking could host 300 VIP’s on the ship.The food was served from eight buffet stations with each station serving food from a different region of China. The food was nothing special. Since we had little view of the stage from the banquet hall, it was broadcast on televisions located throughout the venue.The traditional way to christen a ship is to break a bottle of champagne across the bow. Since Viking is Norwegian, they break a bottle of Akvavit which is released by cutting a red cloth with an axe wielded by a Viking and the godmother of the ship. The entertainment included classical music but it was hard to hear in the banquet hall. Returning to the ship was so chaotic that the Port Authority relented and let us walk home. The consensus was that we would have been better off eating on the ship and watching from there. Viking put out an email hyping the event. The overwhelming majority of passengers would tell a different story!

As I mentioned in the last post, the drive from Shanghai to Suzhou was over miles of elevated highway.There are two things to notice in this picture. First is the blue mood lighting on the sides of roadway in this multilevel interchange. Second is the continuous planters on the top of the barrier walls for the entire interchange and other parts of the elevated roadway. I believe planter watering must be part of the Chinese full employment program.Two final pictures from Suzhou. While the top picture is fuzzy, you can see that this house is drying meat along with their underwear, and in the bottom picture someone has hung their bird out on the clothesline to enjoy the crisp morning air.

And finally, the Shanghai building pictures I promised.The bottom picture should be a movie as the building was continuously changing colors and images. This was accomplished with lights surrounding each window.

Our next stop tomorrow is Hong Kong.

The Humble Administrator in a Small City

Friday I visited what our guide referred to as the “small” city of Suzhou, China. With a population of over six million people, it is small relative to the 24 million people in Shanghai; but large relative to most of the cities we call home. Suzhou is laced with canals which leads to comparisons with Venice. We had a two hour drive each way past miles and miles of high rise buildings. I am going to do a separate blog on the buildings of Shanghai.

Our first activity was a cruise along the canals of Suzhou’s historic area. The buildings are typically white with a gray roof. Most houses face a street with steps down to the canal in the rear. The inhabitants of the area are primarily older people who have been there for years and don’t want to leave their neighbors. It is somewhat of a communal lifestyle as many homes share kitchens, porches, and other facilities with their neighbors.This woman was mopping the steps leading down to the canal. This appeared to be a common activity as many houses had a mop in the back. Many people also wash their clothes in the canal. While we only saw a few people doing that, we saw laundry hanging everywhere.Many of the houses needed a little work on the water side.Friday must be the day to wash the quilts as there were way more quilts than underwear drying. The column tops of the bridges even had quilts tied around them to dry. The weeping willows along the bank coming into leaf and a few redbud blooms indicated spring was near.Pagoda roofs also dotted the skyline.This vendor didn’t seem to want to have her picture taken, but her colorful cart of fruit for sale was a work of art.We even saw a traditional Chinese boat plying one of the canals.It is hard to believe that this mass (mess?) of electrical wires could exist so near to the modern city of Shanghai. I would hate to be the one who had to find the bad wire!

My second stop was at a silk embroidery workshop that specialized in two sided works where the back was the exact reverse of the front. One of the works in their lobby was a portrait of Princess Di. From as close as several feet away, you would have sworn that it was a photograph.I wasn’t allowed to photograph Princess Di, but this will give you an idea of the quality of their work. They are all mounted so you can swivel them between front and back to appreciate the two sidedness.A picture such as the one above would take one person over a year to make. The details are achieved by using thread that is one fourth the diameter of a human hair. In addition they have dozens of shades of each color. To the amazement of Susan and myself, I bought a piece of art despite the fact that Susan was on a different tour. I even used some of the negotiating skills I had learned from her including the essential one of walking away.The shop had a garden where this duck was trying to warm up in the sun.

After a lunch served family style on lazy susans, I went to the Humble Administrator’s Garden. The garden was built between 1513 and 1526 by a government official who had suffered many demotions and promotions in his life. He decided to retire from public life and create a garden that would show his fine taste. His friend said it was a way of ruling for a failed politician. The creator’s son lost the garden in a gambling debt and it was divided and passed through many hands before being purchased and restored by the Chinese government in 1952. Today it is a UNESCO Site and one of the finest gardens in China.

A Chinese garden is composed of four elements: rock, water, plants, and buildings.The zig zag bridge to the pagoda is designed to keep evil spirits away. It is believed that they can only travel in a straight line. There is a lip to step over in all doorways because it is believed that evil spirits cannot rise over them. The walls had windows to frame the views. There was a different design in each of the dozens of rectangular windows.I liked the twisted trunks of this tree.Very few plants were in bloom, but I don’t believe that flowers are a critical element of a Chinese garden.Bamboo was used as an artistic element that also protected the trunk of this large vine.

There was a small exhibit of Chinese flower arrangement. I thought this was one of the better tour days on this cruise.

Susan took a Jewish Heritage tour which I am urging her to write up. Feel free to increase the pressure on her! I plan to do a third Shanghai post on some of the buildings and roads by day and by night. We have two days at sea before reaching Hong Kong.

An Architect’s Dream

If you like modern architecture, Shanghai is truly a dream world. The more you sit and stare at the buildings, the more unique things you see.You might notice that we are dressed a little differently from other pictures on this trip. After days of hot and humid elsewhere, Shanghai is 50, overcast, and windy. We finally were able to justify bringing our packable down jackets.The tall building with the globes at the top and bottom is known as the Pearl Tower. The building to the right of it with the opening at the top is known as the can opener. And the tallest building to the right of it was once the tallest building in the world until being surpassed by what our guide called “Bloody Dubai”. This is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which honors revolutionary heroes as well as people who lost there lives fighting natural disasters.The bund is an area along one side of the river that has many historical buildings that once housed banks and trading companies.A wide levy has been built along the river to prevent flooding. The levy is very popular for scenic riverside strolls with constant views of modern Shanghai on one side and historic Shanghai on the other.It was also a very popular area for bridal pictures. This poor woman must have been freezing. Another wedding photographer seemed to want a picture of his subjects running. The bride and groom were running back and forth, side by side, until he captured the perfect image.The street side of the levy was decorated with flowers in a colorful design. The detail at the bottom shows that the effect is created with individual pots of flowers installed at an angle. I wonder how they water them???A highlight of our tour was the Shanghai Museum. The building design mimics a classic Chinese cooking pot.The museum featured costumes, furniture, pottery, masks, and statues. I don’t quite understand the significance of the warrior on the bottom right standing on a baby. I particularly liked the woodwork on the chair back in the top center,It seemed that every building had some unique architectural detail. I couldn’t get a good picture of the building in the top right corner, but those are three egg like objects hanging in the opening of the building. There are walkways leading to them, so they might have some use. It looks like a lot of money to create some space that is difficult to utilize.

Tonight is the christening of the ship. It looks like it is going to be a big deal involving red carpet, a symphony orchestra, an outdoor stage with dancers, and a covered seating area for dignitaries. Some six hundred of us are going to a venue overlooking the site and ship for an eight course dinner featuring cuisine from each region of China. More to follow!

Pagsanjan Falls

Sunday we visited Manila in the Philippines. Rather than visit another large city, we chose an adventurous and scenic trip to Pagsanjan Falls. It was another two and a half hour bus ride with a police escort to clear the way for us. This time the police were on motorcycles. Maybe the novelty is wearing off, but it didn’t seem as exciting as the first time. The only wrinkle was that the police could knock on the driver’s window if the driver wasn’t paying attention. I would hate to have been someone from the US driving there and have a policeman knock on my window and motion frantically for me to move over.

The first order of business when we arrived was to line up at what seemed to be a little chapel (you can see Jesus on the back wall) to get a life jacket, hard hat, and pray for our survival. After all, we survived the bus ride here – how bad can this be.We both looked quite dapper in our new outfits. By the way, does it look to you like they got the size of the life jackets reversed? The boats were wooden canoes with two passengers in the center and two boatmen in the front and back of each boat. To make it easier in the initial flat stretch of the river, the boats would tie up to a motorized canoe forming a long line. Once we reached the rapids, everyone untied from the motorized boat and proceeded by paddle and foot power.

Usually when you go whitewater rafting, you put in upstream and float downstream. In this case, we had to put in downstream and paddle upstream to the falls and then float back downstream to our starting point.There were a total of fourteen rapids. Thirteen of them were certainly class 1 with one possibly being a class 2. The technique to move the boat upstream through the rapids was a combination of standing and lifting combined with a lot of jumping from side to side so you could kick off the rocks. All the boatmen did this barefoot. Generally the younger and stronger boatman was in the front and the older one was in the back. It was definitely hard work!The scenery in the canyon was beautiful with nearly vertical, vegetation covered walls and a side waterfall.After an hour on the river, we reached our main destination, Pagsanjan Falls. The canoes were all docked and we hopped out of the canoe for the short walk to the falls. Well, hopped might not quite be the right word. You will note that we have been sitting on the bottom of the canoe for an hour. While it wasn’t exactly pretty, I am proud to say that I was able to stand and walk to the front of the canoe without assistance.And here is the proof we reached the falls. So far, we were relatively dry with only a little water splashing into the canoe. But that was about to change.Next, we all piled onto a bamboo raft for a trip under the falls into a small cave behind it. We all thought the raft was overloaded since the rear was several feet under water. However, we took off with two boatman pulling the raft along a fixed rope. I was near the front of the raft with nothing to hold onto and Susan was behind me holding onto me for dear life. It was a hot day, but the combination of the cool river water and the wind made it feel downright cold underneath the falls. We were on the left side of the raft which meant we bore the full brunt of the falling water. The hard hat protected our head. I looked down to keep the water out of my eyes and mouth. Everyone survived and enjoyed the experience.The ride back downstream was a lot of fun and went faster. In the top picture, you can see they had logs spanning the rapids in spots to facilitate moving the canoes upstream. It was important to keep your fingers inside the canoe to keep from pinching them against rocks or canoes going in the opposite direction.

We concluded the boat ride with a buffet lunch and the bus ride back to the ship.The Jeepney is the traditional public transportation in the Philippines.From what we could observe from the bus, Manila is a large city with lots of building cranes, attractive high rise buildings, and an abundance of slums on the ground.We ended the day with a colorful, Philippine cultural show. The show was very professional and was the fitting climax to a really fun day. We arrive in Shanghai for the christening celebration of the Viking Sun after three sea days.

Wild Man of Borneo

Today we visited Kota Kinabalu (locally known as KK) in the state of Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. We heard a lot of stories about head hunting and human sacrifice in the various indigenous tribes. According to the guide the practice ended in the 1930’s; but according to Wikipedia, the Allies encouraged it during WW II to help overcome occupying forces. The state government encouraged it again in the 1960’s to help overcome communists in the country. Headhunting was done for many different reasons such as to pay dowry for marriage, bring fertility to the fields, and to strengthen the foundation of houses. Those who were not headhunters might practice human sacrifice. They would wine and dine their intended victim for a year before capturing him, tying him up, and literally inflicting death by a thousand cuts – one from each member of the tribe including children and grandmothers. This all seemed in contrast to the Abode of Peace we visited the previous day on the same island!The skulls were hung from the ceiling of the house along with shells and traditional dried plants and were passed on from generation to generation. Fortunately, there is no indication these practices are being practiced today. The people were very friendly and welcoming to us. Uh oh, didn’t I just say that is how the human sacrifice began?

Most of the tribes were a matriarchal society; and in the state of Sabah, women still have a favored position. People hope their first child will be female and all inheritance goes to their female children. This makes it very important for men to find a wife and to be good to their sisters!

We visited the State Museum which had a village of traditional houses that had been moved to the museum. These women are wearing traditional clothing of their tribe.This house features the original trampoline. In the center of the house is a platform supported on two long bamboo poles. The idea is for everyone to jump on the platform in a dance and then to work together so the person in the center can jump high enough to touch the bird sculpture hanging above. This could also be a contest by continually raising the bird to see who could jump the highest.This is the City Mosque also called The Floating Mosque. It was Friday, so we were unable to go inside the mosques.The other major mosque in town was the State Mosque.There were several new buildings that were prominent in the skyline of the city. The top one is the new Parliament Building. The bottom is a copy of buildings built previously in several other countries.The harbor was filled with fishing boats. When you looked at just one of them, they looked old and run down. When you looked at a number of them together, they looked colorful and picturesque.KK also had a water village surrounding an island in the harbor.

Our guide talked to us about the requirements to buy a gun in Malaysia. First, you have to get a permit which takes a year and a half. It is unclear whether this is due to government inefficiency or the thoroughness of the check. Next, the gun can only be bought from a catalog and must be sent to the police department. The police then come to your house to verify you have a safe place to keep the gun. If everything is OK, you then get the gun and a limited supply of about five bullets. To get more bullets, you must turn in the casings of your used bullets. My guess is that there aren’t many mass shootings in Malaysia.

Nothing I saw today reminded me of my previous visits to KK. It is a pretty modern city now. I also think there is a big difference in what you see as a tourist and what you see when you are overnighting in a city between flights. We have another sea day to relax before reaching Manila.

The Abode of Peace

Today we visited the small nation of Brunei, which is officially known as “Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace”. It has a population of under 450,000 and shares the island of Borneo with Indonesia and Malaysia.It is an absolute monarchy ruled by a 72 year old sultan who appears to be very popular with the people. We were advised not to wear yellow or gold clothing as those are the colors of the sultan’s family.Our first stop was a local food market featuring a lot of rice and tapioca. The lady in the bottom picture is making small containers from reeds which are used for steaming rice.Our next stop was the largest water village built on stilts in the world. It has a population of about 45,000 people and stretches for five miles along the river. It consists of a new, modern part which is public housing and an older part which is private. If you don’t own any land in Brunei, the government will build a house for you and lease it to you. The public housing had air conditioning and concrete walkways with railings. The older housing had no air conditioning (something you really need!!!) and wooden walkways with no railings. The village includes schools, mosques, a hospital, and some small stores and restaurants. But for significant shopping you have to take a water taxi to the mainland. There are about three times more water taxis in Brunei than car taxis.The gold dome is the most we saw of the Sultan’s palace. It is the largest residential palace in the world, with 1788 rooms, 257 bathrooms, a 110 car garage, and a banquet hall that can hold 5000 of the Sultan’s closest friends. The palace cost more than one billion (yes that is really a “b”) dollars. Despite this excess, the Sultan is alleged to be popular with the general population. Perhaps it is because he opens the palace to them for three days following Ramadan where they are served a buffet dinner and given a gift. He also visits the above water village periodically to discuss their needs. One need is to clean up the water under the village!Of course, there is the requisite royal mosque with a capacity of 3000. The dome is 24 karat gold leaf. The boat is a replica of the Sultan’s barge from the 16th century.The largest mosque in the city has a capacity of 5000 people.And this is the Parliament Building where the representatives appointed by the Sultan and the city meet to rubber stamp the decisions of the Sultan. Tomorrow will be a somewhat nostalgic day for me when we visit Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. I flew through there many times to visit a plant my company built on the nearby island of Labuan.

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce