Grand Pacific IV -- April 1 - April 6
This long day began with breakfast delivered by Rainer at 7:30am. We then went to meet everyone in the Starlite Club at 8:45am. Promptly at 9:00am, they began calling groups to their respective busses. We were pleased to see Dick and Eloise in our group, so our request must have worked. Mel and Barbara were thrilled to see us, although they should have already known they would be on the bus with us.
Where the notion came from about traveling in 8-person vans came from, we have no idea. The logistics of transferring just the 180 World Cruise guests in that manner would have been staggering. Needless to say, we are on standard size sightseeing busses, not vans. There are six busses for World Cruise guests and about ten for segment guests. The busses are new and as comfortable as can be expected. The air conditioning works, and we don’t care about anything else anyway. We will be on the same bus with the same people for both days. We will also have the same guide, assistant and driver. Our guide’s name is Lily and she speaks perfect English.
Once all of the 550 guests (all but 40 of the total on the ship) were accounted for, the busses set off in numerical order, preceded by a police car complete with flashing lights. Let’s state right here that this entire experience was absolutely flawless. We were treated to more privileges than any ordinary tourist could even dream of. Sit back and relax…here we go!
The convoys departed exactly at 9:30am for the 3-hour drive to Beijing. The port is located in the third-largest city in China, Tianjin, which is an industrial city. Although it does appear that the people have at least the basics of life, they live in dilapidated high-rise apartments that are all exactly alike. Each has one fluorescent light and that’s all. There are some newer buildings of about 20 stories, but the apartments don’t appear to be much larger.
The atmosphere is hazy and almost foggy. We can’t tell if it really is fog or pollution at this point, but everything is dusty in spite of ever-present old ladies with brooms. Everything is BIG. BIG stainless steel monuments, BIG buildings, BIG factories, BIG boulevards. You get the idea. This port city has nothing to offer except tacky bars and such.
We traveled along a modern expressway, stopping many times to pay a toll. The road itself is about as modern and well-maintained as possible, except it is often shared with bicycles and pedestrians when passing through a village. Whatever road rules there may be are largely ignored, so there is much horn honking and brake slamming, but no collisions.
Along the first two hours of the drive we saw only flat farm land and fish ponds. We were told at least three times that the ponds are for growing fish, but some guests still insisted on believing they are rice paddies. In case you are wondering, they did not resemble rice paddies in the slightest except perhaps for the water.
An odd thing we saw everywhere is the planting of millions of willows in a band about 50 feet wide along the roadway. When these trees grow, assuming they do, one will see nothing but trees for three hours. We wonder if this is really an environmental thing as we were told, or if it is to obscure the view of some less than gleaming examples of communist living along the way? We saw only farms, slums, or huge high-rise apartments. There is nothing much in between.
About halfway through the drive, all of the busses stopped together at a truck stop consisting of a huge restaurant at one end and restrooms at the other. The women came right back out refusing to use the facilities. We didn’t partake in them, so we have no comment, but the buildings are modern, so how bad can it be? Apparently, they have squat toilets rather than Western-style, so that probably is the issue. The vendors did a booming business in tacky trinkets. Maybe we should have sold copies of the "Going Abroad" book we brought?
One man on our bus tripped and fell flat on his face, literally, and ended up with a huge purple bruise on his cheek. This trend continued throughout the trip with about five guests doing exactly the same thing along the way. When will people learn that they are not in the United States and they have to watch where they are walking?
We continued our journey to Beijing, with the countryside slowly giving way to old, run down villages, then ratty high-rise apartments, modern apartments, and finally a gleaming city filled with BIG building, BIG monuments, and BIGGER government buildings. Our guide told us that all of the tall buildings are on the outskirts of town because they want to preserve the ancient feeling of the center of town. OK, but since when do HUGE buildings made of concrete fit in with the Forbidden City? Never mind, just shut up and believe it.
The boulevards in Beijing are the widest we have ever seen. Each elaborate street light must have twenty globes on it, at least. Whoever had the design franchise for grand lighting fixtures sure has it made here. There is a huge fixture every fifty feet and each park has another grand monument flanked with gigantic light fixtures.
We traveled on a modern freeway sort of road that is shared with pedestrians and bicycles in a chaotic manner than makes no sense at all. Although the overpasses have ramps at the intersections, they meet the new roadway at a right angle, with no stop sign or lights. Basically, the cars are just thrust directly into the oncoming traffic. Oh, and they have to cross a separate side road full of people and bicycles. Cleaver, huh?
Anyway, we were taken first to the modern Grand Hotel for lunch. This is a five-star hotel with outstanding service in an attractive building. It is certainly as nice as any Hyatt one would find anywhere. There is a staff member about every five feet to make sure no one gets lost on the way to the lunch venue, a huge atrium on the third floor.
Once at the atrium, we were dumped into a roomful of big tables with a buffet of sorts set up at each end. This is what was referred to as a “Western-style” lunch. Well, sort of. The buffet set up was at one long table (duplicated at the other end of the room), with desserts and plates at one end, and entrees and plates at the other. Can anyone guess what happened? Yes, people started at both ends! So, there was a huge collision in the center, with no movement at all in the lines.
We stood in a corner and just watched, along with Lee, an Ambassador Host who is our group’s escort. When there was finally no line, we jumped in. This was after a guest went and took some extra utensils from the staff and set it up so people could serve themselves from both sides of the table. How hard can this be?
The food was, well, not Western. There wasn’t anything weird like chicken feet or anything, but what was there wasn’t very appealing. For example, they had cashew chicken we have all seen in a Chinese restaurant, but it had the skin and bones chopped up in it. We found plenty to eat though. The Szechwan chicken was quite good, for example. Others, however, were not amused. One women yelled out to no one in particular, “I can’t stand to even look at this CRAP!” OK, now aren’t we being a bit harsh? They could have served fried scorpions and chicken heads like we learned they served on the crew tour. Just shut up and make the best of it.
Finished with our entrees, we went back for the desserts to fill up a bit more. That part was recognizable, nothing weird, and fairly tasty. But, there were no plates left. Staff is standing about ten feet away at the drink station. Staring, doing nothing in particular. Hey, someone told them to serve drinks, not fetch plates. Guests stand there looking dippy, paralyzed by the situation. Solution: Dave goes to the other end of the table and hauls back a stack of clean plates. Voila! Make the best of it, don’t just stand there. God, people are helpless.
Out front with the busses, there are police keeping the riff raff away. We walked onto the sidewalk for a photo, and became a tourist attraction again. No one bothers us, they just stare as though we are from Mars. Aren’t we in one of the biggest cities in the world? You’d never guess it.
Time to move on, so we get back on the bus, everyone is prompt as usual, which is amazing in itself. We declare to Eloise and Dick that we are glad to be on the “no whining” bus with only 26 people rather than on the other ones that are nearly full. We guess that Renato has done us a favor because it really does appear that all of the least bitchy people are on this bus. That is except for Marion, who was requested by the Mel and Barbara. Otherwise, we are really pleased with our companions. Actually, Marion didn’t bother us, she just looks unpleasant.
Next stop, the Forbidden City, one of the premier tourist attractions in China. As everyone knows, this was the residence of the emperors, so we won’t bother with an explanation of it here. Another perk of this tour immediately becomes apparent upon arrival. First of all, we have lost the segment guests, so it is just the six World Cruise busses. We never will converge with them again except at tonight’s dinner. Second, our busses drive up directly to the gates and leave us there. Everyone else has to park a mile away and walk in.
Oh, we didn’t mention that it is 96 today! So much for the chilly forecast. Thank goodness we looked up the weather on the Internet and adjusted our wardrobe. Honestly though, the heat was never a problem the entire time. Most places are shady or breezy or both, and there is no humidity at all.
Here we are at one of the places we all see in pictures, the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City. Across an enormous stone courtyard are the famous carved stone bridges leading up to the Supreme Harmony Gate. All around are more halls and rooms, beyond which are more halls, courtyards, terraces and corridors. The details are amazing with ceramic tile animals along the eaves and such. We keep moving straight ahead, pausing now and then for an explanation from our guide who then points out the next meeting place and lets us go to take pictures. She had this organized down to a science and no time is wasted. Yet, we have plenty of time for pictures and poking around, usually five to ten minutes, which is enough with so much to cover. More pictures: Stone Steps, Bronze Lion.
Through the Supreme Harmony Gate we go and into an enormous terrace courtyard containing the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle Harmony and Hall or Preserving Harmony. If you want to know what all these halls were used for, you’ll have to look it up on your own. Let’s just say, someone had way too much money and way too many slaves at some point in history. There are enormous cauldrons everywhere that were originally covered in gold and filled with water intended to fight fires, although this would never have worked. More photos: Terraces, Wall Details, Roof Details.
Many of the terraces and buildings are under restoration, but all-in-all things are looking pretty good. Although there is a sort of undercurrent of things not being quite as modern as the Chinese would like us to believe, they are doing a better job than the Soviets ever did at keeping up the façade.
As an aside, we noticed in Shanghai and here as well, that the people are rather polite to one another and speak in low voices. There isn’t anything harsh in their speech, so we’re assuming it has to do with speaking Mandarin here rather than another dialect. We’re surprised by the lack of Western tourists. Almost everyone at the tourist sites is Chinese. The only Western tourists we saw were other guests from Crystal Symphony and a couple busloads of people from Australia and Ireland. So, we continue to draw stares from the locals.
Next is to step through the Heavenly Purity Gate. In ancient times, no men over 14 were allowed beyond this point. When the children of emperors reached this age, they had to leave the palace. That’s because the halls along this courtyard housed the royal concubines who were supposedly so beautiful that men would be too tempted by them. Yeah, well, that’s what she told us.
Here we’ll find the Hall of Union (guess what that was for?) Palace of Heavenly Purity and Earthly Tranquility Palace. Along the sides are ornately detailed halls that were the quarters for the concubines and such. The detail is astounding. The yellow tile roofs are embellished with dragons and other animals. Every inch is painted in great detail, most of which is in very good condition.
Next is the Imperial Garden that is home to the Imperial Peach Hall and the Thousand Autumns Pavilion, along with lovely garden spaces so that the emperor didn’t have to venture outside the palace walls for a stroll. Must be nice.
From here, the busses transported us to the other side of the Forbidden City to view Tian An Men Square. Again, we had a police escort and were parked directly in front of the BIG Chinese Revolution History Museum directly across from the square. No one is allowed to park here, by the way, but we were.
We were lead across the wide boulevard to the square itself, which is full of people flying kites and generally reveling in the end of their required pilgrimage to this site. Chinese people are sort of informally required to make this visit at least once according to our guide. When she was asked by an insensitive guest about the student uprising, she claimed she didn’t know anything about it and had nothing to say. But, the next thing she said was, “You see the big portrait of Chairman Mao over there? You will notice how his eyes are always watching you no matter where you are.” Enough said.
She gave us 30 minutes to walk around the square and do as we please. Ordinarily, tourists are not allowed to take pictures of sensitive subjects, police vans, for example. No such restrictions applied to the guests from Crystal Symphony. We are allowed to go anywhere and do anything we please.
Tian An Men Square is bounded on one side by the infamous Gate of Heavenly Peace from which the giant portrait of Chairman Mao keeps an eye on everything and everyone. Behind us is the Chinese History Museum. In the center is the towering Monument to the People’s Heroes. Opposite the gate is Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, which is much larger than Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square, but serves the same purpose and has the same two-hour minimum wait to get in. The usual gigantic monuments to the People's something-or-other flanks the entrance court.
The remaining side of the square is the location of the famous Great Hall of the People. This is where the people’s council meets, dignitaries are entertained, etc. No one gets in there unless they are a head of state or an extremely high VIP. It’s not exactly a tourist attraction, except from the outside. Security is very tight and there are patrolling guards along the perimeter.
Once we had our fill of photo opportunities in the square, we were at last taken across town (about a 30 minute drive through chaotic traffic) to the finest hotel in the city, the Shangri-La. Segment guests stayed at the Sheraton while the crew on tour stayed at the Intercontinental.
Check-in was so fast we almost missed it. They handed out cold towels, glasses of juice and our room key all within about five minutes. This in spite of having 180 people arrive all at the same time.
We wouldn’t go so far as to call the hotel beautiful, although it sports enormous crystal chandeliers and marble floors. But the service is outstanding. There is no possible way to get lost because if you even look vaguely confused, someone rushed right over to help. That is on top of the hundreds of Crystal reps all over with clip boards. This is the best organized tour ever in history, in our opinion.
There was a bit of a line at the elevators, but it didn’t take long to get one. By the way, you don’t even have to summon an elevator yourself. A uniformed bellman pushes the button for you.
Just as we were about to put the key card in the slot of our room on the 13th floor (yes, you read that right), a hotel staff member ran up and stopped us. She started apologizing profusely that they had given us the wrong room and to please follow her. She insisted on taking our hand luggage, although she was about ¼ the size of either of us. She kept apologizing all the way to the 23rd floor and into a room with a panoramic view of the city. Well, as panoramic as the haze lets it be, let’s say.
This kind of thing happens every time we use Crystal hotel program. We always get moved up to the best room over anyone else. We never ask or make a scene. Heck, we don’t care as long as there is a bed and the water works! We must be kissing up to the right people because it never fails that this happens.
Our room is spacious, but nothing exciting particularly. There is three-channel music with speakers in the bathroom and a control panel by the bed to work the lights and such. It’s looking a bit dated, but things are in good repair. We have noticed that the construction methods here are far superior to what we found in Russia. At least the corners meet and the plumbing works.
We only had an hour to shower and get ready for our big dinner tonight. When we first saw the itinerary, we had considered skipping this part, but when we found out where we were to eat, we changed our mind.
Departure is from the lobby at 6:00pm and everyone was there on time. Again, the flashing lights and off we went to our dinner venue. The caravan of busses drew quite a lot of attention, although it didn’t stop anyone from cutting in front whenever possible.
Next stop, the Great Hall of the People! Yes, that Great Hall of the People!! Remember, only the top of the top get to even go inside, this isn’t a convention hall. And, here we are, arriving with a police escort, the sidewalks cordoned off and lined with soldiers, driving literally up onto the steps at the entrance to the Grand Reception Hall. Now we know what it’s like to be the President.
We had to pass an intense security check in the foyer, which bogged things down a bit with every guest from Crystal Symphony arriving at once, but there were no problems and people weren’t complaining.
Once inside we passed through the biggest reception hall we have ever seen. There must be a trillion light bulbs to fill all of the chandeliers and sconces in this place. Take note, however, that the moment everyone was inside, the lights are turned off. It was sort of like your mother going behind you as a kid switching off the lights. Does that tell you anything? If not, it should, but we’re not going to explain it. Also, all of the lights are fluorescent, even in the crystal chandeliers. Is there maybe some sort of shortage of electricity? Nah, not in the People’s Republic!
Up the grandest and BIGGEST staircase we’ve ever seen, across miles and miles of red carpets, down hallways two stories tall lined with HUGE oriental paintings, beneath GIGANTIC chandeliers, and through ENORMOUS doors we went. You’d never know that there are almost 600 people here. The banquet hall can hold 5,000 diners at one time!
Now, if you thought we had seen some lights, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! The Banquet Hall’s three story high ceiling boasts a garland of lights, chandeliers and what have you so bright we didn’t need a flash to take any pictures here. An army of young Chinese, probably the party-hopefuls best, lined up precisely to serve us a traditional Chinese banquet at huge round tables. In the center of each table, a HUGE lazy Susan is filled with about ten appetizers. In front of each person is a small cut crystal goblet of white wine and red wine (God awful, by the way), and water. Around the upper level of the huge room is another level of draped balconies.
We were left to serve ourselves from the continuous array of Chinese dishes. Some recognizable, some not, but all the best the people have to offer. God forbid anyone should acknowledge this, however. We saw platters of food at other tables go untouched. We have to thank our tablemates for being good sports, because we all had fun trying everything and usually discovering some alien substance actually tasted rather good.
Besides, it’s fairly obvious that Crystal isn’t going to let them serve us anything too bizarre. The weirdest thing we had was a sort of gelatinous cube of an opaque, slightly green, hue. No one would try it, so Dave decided to be brave and give it a shot. It was a slightly sweet cube of jellied peas. It was really good and once the ice was broken, everyone ate one. Other items were steamed buns filled with broccoli and mushrooms, sesame buns with minced pork, turkey rolls, dried anchovies (OK, we’ll admit, that one is weird), fried chicken cutlets, fish in silver paper, giant crispy battered prawns, seafood stew (complete with whole clams and such…a bit too much for us), sweet walnut soup and sliced fruit.
Everyone at our table thought the food was excellent, but many others did nothing except complain about everything so far being inedible and/or disgusting. There has been nothing of the sort, so far. We find it hard to believe that none of these people have ever had Chinese food and we’ve had nothing so off the wall we wouldn’t try it, which is saying something.
Toward the beginning of dinner there were formal speeches from a Chinese official, the president of Crystal Cruises, and a high-ranking officer of the Chinese tourist bureau. These were delivered from a HUGE stage over which a GIGANTIC banner proclaimed a “Warm Welcome to the Distinguished Guests from Crystal Symphony.”
Then the entertainment program began. This was also quite obviously the best of the best and was a nice sampling of talents. It started off with a female opera singer who was extremely good. Unfortunately, the volume was so high that we’re surprised our ears didn’t bleed. No kidding. People had to cover their ears at the high notes. Did anyone think to turn it down for the next number by a male singer? What do you think?
The volume continued with an outstanding demonstration of martial arts by some school boys and girls, an adorable dance number with little children, some impressive acrobats, and an absolutely beautiful presentation by some women spinning multiple plates on wires while dancing. It doesn’t sound impressive, but it really was. As you may know, if we think it’s great, it probably made other people see God.
OK, show is over, get out. No time wasted around here, there’s a schedule to keep. Quick, switch on the lights in the corridors! Oh my God, people have reached the stairs, turn on the lights! It really was amusing watching them struggle to keep up with the flow of people through the halls. Someone forgot that we had to go outside to board the busses, so the HUGE chandelier-type lights outside weren’t on in time, but by the time we drove off they were.
More flashing lights and going the wrong way down the street and we were back at the hotel in no time. We jumped into bed as quickly as possible for the pre-arranged group wake up call at 6:30am tomorrow. Did they think of everything, or what? No chance to be late around here, that’s for sure. We decided to set our alarm for 6:00am to avoid being startled by the phone ringing. We each received a gift of one of those bottles painted on the inside from the tourist board of China.
During the night, the air conditioning is switched off, but we didn’t really find this to be a problem. There is also a notice that the power may go off now and then after midnight. It was said that this is for maintenance, but we find that hard to believe since the card announcing this fact was not new.
Up at the crack of dawn, as scheduled. We have a lovely view of the cloverleaf freeway below and the bizarre planning is in evidence during rush hour. We’ve already explained the way the ramp just deposits cars onto the other road with no transition, but what we notice today is the make up of the traffic.
Yes, there are millions of cars, but 90% of them are taxis. Many of the others are black official cars with drivers. Translation, the “regular” people can’t afford a car. We also see that even more people are walking into the city than riding bicycles. So, either they can’t afford to buy a bicycle or it’s too expensive to keep and maintain one. We also have a view of the high-rise apartments complete with only one fluorescent lightbulb, no window coverings, etc. Remember when you go to these places touted as perfect that you need to peer through the curtains to see reality.
Traveling down in the elevator we noticed that the carpets have the day of the week on them. Yesterday we didn’t realize the significance, but today we see that they change them every day so guests always know what day it is when they start out. Clever, huh?
In the huge lobby, a string of hotel staff and Crystal reps pointed us along the corridors to the Shang Palace Restaurant for our complimentary breakfast. On the way there, the power went out briefly, twice. Once inside the beautiful restaurant, we were directed to a big round table, but we decided to just go directly to the buffet.
Eloise said a woman went to the desk to ask whether or not it is OK for her to do something or other. The response was, "You are VVVVVVVVVIP's! You can do whatever you want!"
On the buffet, there is anything one can imagine to eat, all American style by the way. Eggs, made to order omelets, fruit, cereal, several kinds of sausages, bacon, French toast, you name it. After we loaded up, we saw that Dr. John, the drunk who is never without a drink in hand, is at our assigned table, so we sat elsewhere. The power went out again and left us in pitch blackness for a few seconds. It must happen all the time because the staff didn’t blink an eye.
Two couples we have never seen before joined us. OH MY GOD, these people are dipshits! First they asked us if we were glad to have something “edible” for a change. We replied, “What do you mean?” They answered, “You mean you could eat that stuff they served to us yesterday?” OK, now lets get real. There was absolutely nothing unrecognizable except that jelly cube. We realized that they are idiots, so we said, “We ate everything and loved it.” That’s not precisely true, but we enjoyed saying it. The conversation continued without our participation, but along the same ridiculous theme. Where did they think they were going when they booked this trip anyway?
We couldn’t get out of there fast enough, so we left the moment we were finished eating. A man at the adjacent table started to slide his chair back and it collapsed. He realized it was going and stood up, but it could have been disastrous. He was big, but not that big.
On the way back to the elevator we ran into Mel and Barbara. Mel was his usual self, proclaiming his shock at seeing us coming out of the restaurant before they got there. Like we had a choice? Get over it already. And this from someone who just gate crashed the wrong breakfast because they got off the elevator on the wrong floor. Of course, no one said anything to them, so they just went into a roomful of people they had never seen before and ate. Now, wouldn’t you get a clue you just might be in the wrong place when you have been on a cruise for over two months with the same people and none of them are there? Dick and Eloise did the same thing, but they were with someone else and they followed him. At least they knew they had gone to the wrong place. Mel didn’t know it until he saw us.
The talk of the morning is that one guest became so ill overnight that she had to be rushed back to the ship. Of course, everyone is convinced the disgusting food did her in. What doesn’t seem to occur to them is that she is only one out of almost 600 people. If the food had been contaminated, far more than that would be ill. It is more likely that she drank the water or was already infected before she left, but reality has nothing to do with a rumor.
Time to meet the bus again and we departed precisely on time at 8:30am for the fifteen minute trip to the Summer Palace. A line of what appeared to be the entire staff of the hotel stood waving to the busses along the hotel’s driveway.
The Summer Palace is similar in some ways to the Forbidden City except it is set in a serene garden setting around an enormous man made lake. Arched bridges cross streams and pagodas adorn picturesque islands. It is difficult to remember the exact order of sites, but we were directed through the East Palace Gate for a stroll to the opposite end. Along the way are lovely pavilions, gates, bronze statues, painted corridors, shaded walks, a misty lake, pagodas atop hills, bridges, ornate rooftops, etc. At the end of a very long, covered promenade (the Empress didn’t want to be rained on, you know), sits a marble boat that goes nowhere. It is there so the Empress could sit and admire her lake and its surroundings.
Now and then, pockets of vendors would rush out and try to sell fake Rolex watches, postcards and such, but they weren’t much of a nuisance. They aren’t supposed to be there, so any commotion would draw attention and cause them to be removed. This area is also very well preserved and still being restored. It is unfortunate that many of the ornately painted pavilions now house food stalls and souvenir stores however.
Near the marble boat we waited for a boat to take us across the lake to the waiting busses. There was a bit of a delay because everyone arrived at once, but the setting was pleasant, so no one seemed to care. The Chinese authorities were more upset by it than any of the guests. The President of Crystal was there with his wife and daughter, so that is probably what caused the consternation. He politely waited for all of the guests to board before doing so himself, which is amazing and appropriate. He sat next to us and discretely agreed with us how ridiculous it is that the majority of these supposedly well-traveled people really see absolutely nothing. We watched them carry on inane conversations, never once looking up to view the stunning scenery. Why not stay home and save yourself a few grand?
We had to run a short gauntlet of souvenir stalls and vendors we were warned not to buy from lest we encourage aggressive behavior. Over time, we have learned the best way to handle it is to look straight ahead and keep walking. It works most of the time and did so again here. The advantage here is that people don’t grab at you. The only bother is constantly saying “no” to them, which serves no purpose anyway.
Our next destination is the restored section of the Great Wall at Ba Da Ling where we are to have lunch at a local hotel. The guide warned us that this is the countryside and not to expect anything fancy here for lunch. No one on our bus seemed to care much.
Before lunch, we had a stop at a Friendship Store for shopping. We don’t mind such stops, particularly on a precisely managed excursion like this, but we weren’t looking forward to it either. Still, we went in just to look.
OK, now this is a store! Quality goods, fair prices, prompt service. We bought an exquisite framed ceramic piece, some hanging glass things that are painted on the inside, and a beautiful picture that appears to be painted but is embroidery. We didn’t want the frame, so they just pulled the picture out, mat and all, and deducted about $200 right of the bat. Everyone was very pleased with the store, which had much higher quality merchandise than the one in Shanghai. We even got a free gift every time we paid for something over $100 (which we did twice). Of course, it was the same communist method of buying where you take a receipt to a cashier, pay, get it stamped, take it back to the sales person, who finally hands over your merchandise, wrapped and ready to carry home.
Time to move along, and off we went exactly as scheduled. Next stop, the Ba Da Ling Hotel, directly adjacent to the entrance to the Great Wall. Again, we parked where no busses or cars are allowed to go, right in the middle of the souvenir stalls and less than fifty feet to the gates.
The hotel caters mostly to Chinese tourists, so it probably wouldn’t be wise for a Westerner to stay here, but the service we experienced was attentive, the food good, and the location perfect. Our only problem was that some of the food didn’t meet our sanitation rule of “cold foods cold and hot foods hot,” so we skipped those. Some people said they thought this was the best meal so far, but the food at the Great Hall of the People was far superior.
Dave got a bit tired of Mel asking him, “What’s this?” every time another dish was served. Dave always replied, “What does it look like?” Mel would say, “Chicken.” Dave would answer, “Then it’s chicken,” which it was, by the way. Next dish, same routine. Enough of that and we were off with Eloise and Dick who have proven to be as coherent as we had hoped. They are pleasant, figure things out in a reasonable way, are smart, fun, and good sports.
Mel? He’s an doddering idiot, period. He is the only person on the bus who reclined his seat when there is no legroom. Dave sat behind him and had to turn sideways, which we probably would have done anyway, but it’s the principle of the thing. He must have asked us twenty times if we thought something or other was “fun” because when he asked at the first lunch, we said, “no.” He asked someone else and they said, “well, it’s not jumping up and down fun.” So, after every single stop he would ask us if it was fun. If we said, “yes,” he would say, “I don’t believe you.” Isn’t he fun? He sure thinks he is. Thank God Barbara isn’t as ridiculous.
We stopped briefly at the entrance to the Great Wall to chat with Luis and Renato who were there to tell the gate who to let in. We’re wearing badges, how hard can it be? Too hard, apparently.
We took a wrong turn and found Jeff trying to get video shots of the people climbing the correct side of the wall. Luckily we hadn’t gone very far, so we just turned around and went toward the top, which is the supposed goal here. Across the top of distant mountains, the wall snakes in every direction. This part has been completely restored, but there are other sections visible that are still in ruin. Up one peak and down another, it continues along for hundreds of miles.
Eloise and Dick are about as energetic as Dave, so they were always around to take photos and vice versa. Bill jumped ahead at one point, but paid the price by spraining something in his leg so he didn’t think he would be able to go up any further. Somewhere along this section is a photo op with a camel, but we can’t figure out what a camel has to do with China. Maybe one would prefer a donkey? No problem, there is one of those, too.
Dave, Eloise and Dick pressed on and reached the top, we think. At least there is a sort of plateau filled with vendors selling metal plaques to commemorate the achievement, so we assume it’s the usual stopping point. There was another opportunity with a camel in case we had missed the first one. We just had to buy the tacky souvenir so we’d have at least one touristy thing to show for it. Bill finally made it just as Dave was on the way down to tell him there isn’t anything to see anyway.
Going down was faster, but somewhat more difficult because the stone steps are worn down. Many parts and just slick stone slopes with nothing to hang onto except a metal railing. Luckily there are frequent flat areas inside the watchtowers that are about fifty feet apart along the entire length. More Photos: Climbed Section, Overview from Top, In the Distance, Long View.
We stopped at one of these large flat areas where official vendors are selling medallions and such. We thought one of these would be easy to transform into a Christmas ornament, but the woman wanted $10 for it, so we passed.
Finally at the bottom, we chatted with a couple of guests and then looked at the same medallions we had just seen for $10 at another stall. The woman there tried to sell us a package of 10 postcards for $4.00. Dave said, “but they are only $1 down there (pointing).” That wasn’t true, by the way. So she said, “OK, $2.00.” “No, they are only $1.00 down the hill.” “OK, $1.00.” We also bought one of the medallions with our names on it for $4.00.
We were on the lookout for hats and t-shirts at this point, so we started off walking along the line of souvenir stalls. Although the vendors will call out trying to sell things, they aren’t obnoxious about it. No one grabbed at us or anything like that and, after all, we really do want to buy something.
T-shirts, all the same, are sold at every stall. We chose a woman who caught our eye from behind the ones who were accosting us and bargained her down from $20 each to two for $12. Hats are the same story. We heard someone selling them for $5. First quote, $15 for one. We got two for $6.00 eventually. It’s really easy when you don’t care, plus these people actually did bargain fairly, so it was kind of fun.
We decided to buy another shirt and went in a small shop where the woman seemed rather pleasant. This time we got the shirt for $5. She had some nice carved wood painted fans that started out at $10 each. No way. We finally ended up with three for $6.
Barbara came out of the Restroom looking appalled, but we figured with a three-hour ride ahead of us we should force ourselves. After much debating, Dave went in and found a perfectly acceptable restroom, complete with an attendant, running water, and hand dryers. All it smelled like was disinfectant. What would she prefer the smell to be? Don’t answer that.
OK, all done with the tour and time to go back to the ship. Oh my, it will be shorter to go the wrong way on the off ramp than to head the right direction. What are we to do? Go the wrong way, silly. Flashing lights and all the busses turn onto the off ramp, up the wrong lane on the freeway and up another off ramp. Fun, huh? How’s that for service?
On the way, Lily, who didn’t seem particularly disturbed by this, told us that when she graduated from college she was “offered” three jobs. She could choose to be an English teacher, work in a four-star hotel, or be a tour guide. Those are the only options, period. Don’t want one of those? Too bad. She said she and her husband have been denied visas to visit the U.S. three times, so travel is relatively impossible, too.
Earlier she had discussed the one child rule. Basically, each couple is allowed only on child unless they are farmers and have a girl first, then they can have a boy to help in the fields. If someone has more than the allowed amount, they have to pay a fine, which she said is affordable, but there’s more. The child is forever denied an identity card so he can’t get help from the state, can’t get any except menial jobs, can’t ever leave the country, etc. Doesn’t that sound fair? Charming.
By the way, although we have driven past farms and fish ponds for over three hours each way, we have not once seen any mechanical farm equipment. Lily said almost all of the farming is done by hand. Isn’t that efficient?
We stopped at the carbon-copy rest stop building on the opposite side of the highway. The same vendors were waiting for us, much to the delight of the shoppers on the bus who loaded up yet again (we refrained). Barbara came out of the restroom holding her nose, but Dave decided to give it a shot. Again, it was immaculate, smelled only like disinfectant, two attendants were mopping the floors, etc. Now, we do admit, we wouldn’t want to squat, but we’ve seen far worse than this.
Outside, waiting with the throngs, we were approached by a Chinese man who just stared at us and said, “Tall.” He said it in Chinese, too. He was actually just being friendly and maybe a bit curious, so it was kind of fun.
One thing we noticed this entire trip is how dreary everything is. They are planting millions of trees both along the highway as mentioned, and in city parks, along medians, etc. There isn’t much in the way of litter because someone is always sweeping. But, everything is coated with dust. Trees aren’t even green anymore. There seems to be plenty of water because we crossed over several wide rivers that were full. What’s the problem here? We’re not sure yet. Is the haze more than a weather phenomena? It’s so bad we hope it isn’t pollution because if it is, it’s worse than anything we’ve seen before.
By the way, we have never crossed paths with the segment guests except at the dinner and the first rest stop. Apparently, they skipped the rest stop on the way back because they beat us back to the ship.
Upon arrival at the ship at 6:30pm, what a welcome is waiting! The side of the ship is painted with “Welcome Back Wallclimbers”, a military band is playing, Deck Stewards are handing out hot wine (why, we don’t know, it’s at least 90), and the Captain himself is standing at the gangway to welcome each person personally. It’s just like embarkation day with waiters scurrying around carrying hand luggage and such. We feel like we have started over from the beginning! Sounds good to us.
We barely had time to shower and run down for dinner. In fact, we didn’t make it until 9:00pm, but the room is practically empty anyway. On the way, we dropped off the pointless forms for Korea declaring the cameras we will take ashore, and Japanese paperwork.
Both of us are very tired and past being hungry, but we thought we should show up for something light and to see if Jerry had a good time. Since we practically forced him to go, we want to see how it went.
Both Jerry and Ger had such a good time they talked a mile a minute. Jerry’s eyes are still popping out of his head. He must have thanked us twenty times for arranging for him to go and he said he learned his lesson to take advantage of the opportunity from now on. He was like a little kid on Christmas morning, which really pleased us.
The crew had basically the same tour we had, with different meals. Their lunch was at a restaurant that served only duck. Duck beaks, duck feet, duck liver, and maybe duck meat. Their main meal was at a really authentic Chinese restaurant where they were served deep fried scorpions and fish heads, among “normal” things. Still, they loved it.
No need for a menu tonight, we only had fruit, the cold soup and the Commander’s salad. No entrée or dessert. No sail away viewing for us tonight, we’re TIRED!
They sort of redid the grout in our shower while we were gone. Well, at least up to about a Filipino's eye level, which is about chest height for us. Nice try. At least the lower part looks better. Here are before and after photos.
Quite a contrast to the weather yesterday, it is extremely windy, clear and only 45 degrees today. Our phone rang at 9:00am, so we are up earlier than we planned. Artie made an appointment with us for 12:45pm to discuss our bio information for the newsletter.
In the Captain’s announcement he apologized for the filthy exterior of the ship and said they have been working all night to “return it to it’s sparkling white” ordinary state. What we thought was just haze or fog yesterday, was extreme pollution. Susanna showed us the cleaning water from just one verandah and it’s black. Even after cleaning them, there are drifts of fine black soot on the decking and in every crack and crevice.
We ventured downstairs to lunch in the Dining Room, spending about 30 minutes waiting in the Crystal Cove. People are still complaining about the food in China. Someone was at the Shore Excursion Desk complaining about a lack of a rest stop on the bus trip back to the port. It seems that only the World Cruise caravan stopped while the segment guests drove directly back to the ship. Considering all the complaining about the first rest stop, they probably felt most people wouldn’t use the facilities anyway, but they really should have stopped. Three hours on a bus is just too long without a chance to move around. However, we didn’t have the problem, so we can’t complain.
We dropped off six rolls of film at the Photo Shop. They are running around like chickens with their head cut off, needless to say. James said it might be a few days for developing, but we don’t mind.
Our table is Jerry’s table for two by the window. The same black dust is caked on the outside of the window sill and a film coats the glass. Jerry and Ger are still excited from yesterday. When we informed Ger that it isn’t warm outside he said, “Well, that’s just stupid.” You had to be there, but we found it funny.
the Soup Kettle
Food review: Everything was very good today. We didn’t have time to order dessert, much to Jerry’s disappointment, because we had to leave to meet Artie in Palm Court before we could order it. Jerry was worried that he hadn’t been fast enough, but he couldn’t have served any faster than he did.
Our interview with Artie went just fine. We told him that our goal is to do as little as possible, which he thought was rather amusing. Otherwise, we just sort of chatted about nothing in particular. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with to include in the paragraph of info on us.
We strolled across the pool deck to reach the Trident Ice Cream Bar. To say that the deck is filthy is an understatement! The carpets inside the doorways are black with tracked in dirt. Drifts of black dust sully the decks and furniture. The Jacuzzi is in the process of being power washed, deck hands are everywhere cleaning every surface with disinfectant soap. We have never seen them clean so thoroughly. Even though they have been working on the cleaning since late last night, they have only worked their way about twenty feet down the deck. Benjamin said they plan to start on the covered pool area tonight. We had no idea how polluted the air was, although it goes a long way to explain why everything was so gray and dusty in spite of the constant sweeping.
Tonight’s dress code is Informal. We made our usual stop before dinner in the Palm Court for an hour, then headed downstairs.
Artie stopped us on the way into dinner to tell us that the conversation we had with him earlier was the most amusing thing he has ever heard. OK, whatever. Maybe if he's been interviewing all these World Cruise people we seem pretty funny at this point.
the Soup Kettle
Food review: Everything this evening was very good, with the beef being outstanding.
Jerry is still bubbling about his experience on tour. He can’t stop telling us about all the details and how glad he is that he went. We half expect him to start jumping up and down he’s so excited.
A bitchy woman at the big table next to us annoyed Augusto to the extreme. He was making bananas Foster next to their table. First she complained because his cart is too far away for her to see. In order to be any closer, he would have had to move the entire table next to them, which, of course, is impossible. Then, after he started cooking, she said, “Did you burn the sugar? It smells like you burned the sugar.” Think of the most nasal, whiny voice you can imagine and then double it for the general idea. After she finished she did say it was the best she had ever had, but wouldn’t it have been better to complain after tasting it than before it is even finished?
Tonight’s entertainment is “The comedy of Comic/Singer/Songwriter, winner of the ‘Jimmy Durante Award’,” Jimmy Travis. Bill intended to go, but Jerry was gushing about climbing the wall and we decided to listen to him instead. Besides, we have seen this guy before and he made offensive gay jokes we almost felt compelled to complain about. We kind of wanted to see him so we could complain now that we have some clout around here.
If you thought we exaggerated about how dirty the ship is, get a load of this letter everyone received from the Captain tonight:
“In an effort to maintain the ‘six star’ appearance of Crystal Symphony, for you, our discerning Crystal Guest, we are planning to wash the ship’s sides including the balconies and windows to rid the ship of the soot and dust we collected during our call to China.
“We would therefore like to request your assistance with this huge undertaking in ensuring that your balcony doors are closed and secured from 10:15am on the following days in port <gives next three port days>.
“I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you, however please rest assured that we will do our utmost to complete this project as quickly as possible. Your kind understanding is appreciated as we maintain our ‘home away from home’.”
We received refill pads of Grand Pacific Circle stationary for our journals as a gift tonight.
Crystal Symphony arrived at the Port of Inchon very early this morning, which awakened us early enough to beat our 7:00am alarm. There is a band of schoolchildren playing traditional Korean music on the dock while marching in various formations. There’s also a welcome banner with “Cristal” spelled incorrectly.
The weather today is very clear, but cold, only around 55. We had our breakfast delivered by Rainer again and went to meet the tour departure in the Starlite Club at 9:00am. Our call was promptly at the specified time and we moved out to the busses after having our bags x-rayed on the way out for the first time ever. The security officer at the gangway said, “I’ve never seen authorities insist on this on the way off the ship before.”
Our tour is titled “The DMZ and Panmunjom,” and will take the entire day. The return time is stated at 5:15pm. We’re telling you all of this so you will understand some upcoming problems, so pay attention. We also understood that the drive from the port, which is 1-1/2 hours from the capital city of Seoul, takes 3 hours. So, we surmised, that is why the tour takes 8 hours.
First thing upon departing in the bus, our guide announced that we will return to the ship tonight at 6:30pm. What? Roxanne, from Shore Excursions is sitting behind us. She got on the walkie-talkie even before the guide had stopped talking. We pictured Renato’s veins popping out of his head with that news. The ship is supposed to sail at 8:00pm, which means we have to be back on board no later than 7:30pm, with early seating dinner starting at 6:15pm. Any late arrival has to be accommodated by the Dining Room, among other complications.
We drove from the clean, modern port onto a freeway into downtown Seoul. The road is modern, drivers follow the rules, and the traffic, although heavy, isn’t any worse than we would find in California. In fact, the suburbs we are passing look like any big city in California. The entire day, we passed no slums or what we would consider bad areas. Everything is neat, clean, and some people live in their own houses. New apartments towers are in good repair and seem reasonably large, not like the tiny one light bulb places in China. Basically, if we were blindfolded and dropped on this road, we would think we were at home. God knows, the signs in Korean aren’t anything new to us.
Probably the most amazing thing is that the traffic rules are obeyed, there is no honking unless absolutely necessary, and all of the traffic consists of private cars and trucks. There is nothing third world about this country.
It did take about 1-1/2 hours to reach the downtown area, which you may notice is not part of our tour description. No matter, it is a nice city, certainly as nice as any at home. People are very friendly and so thrilled to see Americans that they wave from neighboring busses and street corners. The sidewalks are no more crowded than in Los Angeles or anywhere else and the shops aren’t spilling out onto the road. We weren’t sure what to expect here, but we didn’t expect an exact replica of an American city as up to date as it gets.
At first, the guide, who never stopped talking, said we would just drive through the city to look at some of the major sites. We expected that, so no problem. We are in the second bus with only 26 guests, which is nice, but some of them are chronic complainers. The young woman across from us, who everyone says is a travel writer, never looks up from her laptop and has the curtain drawn. We certainly hope she isn’t writing about this trip because she has yet to see any of it. She said that a woman on the Beijing tour kept hitting her in the head and forcing her to look out the window. God forbid she should bother to look at what she paid to see, but that’s her problem.
Eventually, the first bus pulled over in front of one of the many ancient temples in the downtown area. That was OK until the passengers began to disembark. The guide thought maybe they were just getting off to take a photo, so she ran to check. Nope, we’re making a stop here “because we are ahead of schedule.” OK, fine, what’s ten minutes? We got off and took some photos. Seoul is co-hosting the World Cup Soccer Games soon, so there is a huge soccer ball structure in the square.
A young student, probably early high school age, came up to Bill, shook his hand and said in perfect English, “Hello. Welcome to Korea.” Then ran off giggling down the street, thrilled to have touched a real live American.
So we don’t have to keep mentioning it we’ll just sum up one thing right now. This country is clean, extraordinarily friendly, and modern. There is not a spec of trash on the street, the landscaping is well kept, and the highways are as modern as they can get. Some of this, particularly a train to nowhere at the moment, is a show for North Koreans, but the people have ready smiles and seem quite content and well educated.
We did pass what the guide described as a “riot,” but all it looks like to us is a small demonstration. Of course, the police outnumber the students who are chanting, so there is little chance it will turn into anything exciting. There was a strike threat a couple of days ago, so we assume that had something to do with it.
At this point, it is 11:30pm and the guide declares that we are stopping for lunch. What happened to the lunch somewhere near the DMZ that is our supposed destination? Oh well, we’ll never know.
We stop at a modern high-rise, so new that parts of it are still under construction, for lunch at a Korean BBQ restaurant strictly for tourists. Before we stopped the guide explained that we will cook some marinated meat on a burner in the center of the table. There will be a moist towel to wash our hands and several small bowls of condiments; kim chi (a kind of pickled garlic relish with hot sauce), raw garlic, bean sprouts, hot pepper paste and a sort of potato/apple salad. We are supposed to cook the meat and then place it on lettuce leaves, adorn it with whichever condiments we prefer, and eat it like a taco. There will also be soup and steamed rice in front of us. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, it might if anyone had paid attention.
Upon arrival at the restaurant, we met up with all of the other busses on different tours from the ship at the same time. Funny how even the four hour tours of the city include an hour for lunch.
The moment we stepped into the restaurant, which was perfectly clean, sanitary and brand spanking new, people exclaimed, “It doesn’t smell good in here,” etc. It smelled like food, what did they expect? No one has a clue at this point what we will eat, how to eat it, or what anything currently in front of us actually is. So, the guide had to go around and explain it to each table of eight how to eat it, again.
Why bother? When the waitress brought the meat, which consists of thinly sliced beef, sliced onions and garlic in a marinade of soy sauce and ginger, the other guests at our table began making faces of utter disgust. “What’s that?” “I’m going to starve.” “I’m not eating that!” No kidding, it looks exactly like what it is. It’s not gross, not mysterious, smells like ginger, and we are going to cook it right in front of us. What more do they want? We know it’s cooked properly because it’s right in front of us on a grill.
A young man, Sean, who is also on the World Cruise, sat across from us. He’s game for anything, so he goes in with us. We leave the other four people with their grill to fend for themselves, whining the entire time. One woman keeps exclaiming about how disgusting it is, she doesn’t eat beef, etc. So, she asks for rice, which is sitting in front of her in a stainless steel bowl. She takes a bite and proclaims that it doesn’t taste like anything so she isn’t going to eat it. Sean eats it for her while she eats a roll she had stashed in her purse.
Dave cooked our section of the meat and served it into the lettuce, explained to Sean how to do it, and the three of us are fine. It’s tasty, not weird in the slightest and filling enough. The soup is poured from a huge kettle into individual stainless steel bowls with slices of green onions in it. The other four guests complain that it tastes like salty water. It’s miso soup, that’s what it tastes like…sort of. It looks exactly like what it is and besides, we’ve been told three times in advance what it is. Sean, Bill and Dave eat it, while everyone else complains. It’s perfectly fine.
The three of us finished off our grill, all of our rice (Sean made a sort of rice bowl thing after we ran out of lettuce), and then we started on the pile of stuff so disgusting that the other people have barely touched it. Miss Travel Writer goes off in search of something “edible” out on the street during all of this. She doesn’t even wait until the food is delivered to see if it is worth eating. Keep in mind that there are no street vendors here, it’s just like home.
We finally tire of listening to all of the bitching and go downstairs to find the restroom and hide out until 1:30pm when the busses will take off again. The restrooms are just like any public restroom in an office tower, nothing to complain about. We find Doris, our neighbor, outside smoking and tell her of the complaining. She and her sister sat next to us in Beijing and we all liked the food there. She liked the food here, too. We all complain about the complainers.
Time to move on. Miss Travel Writer appears with food from Burger King and some Oreos and declares that she has been living on Oreos for the past two weeks “until we can find some decent food.” She looks like she lives on Oreos, by the way. She thinks everything she says is hilarious and that everyone loves her. Believe us, they don’t. She laughs the entire time she is talking no matter what the subject.
We drive around more of the downtown area, passing the City Hall, National Assembly, and other modern buildings. Then we drive some more. And some more. In circles. Yes, it looks nice, but enough already. Finally, we drive out to see the new World Cup Soccer Stadium, a bright, modern, aluminum and stainless steel affair just recently completed. We had another stop here while the guide went into a big discount store similar to Costco to buy some water for us. No such luck though, so we drive on.
Next stop will be Unification Park. So we drive for about an hour along the sparkling Freedom Highway, passing high-rise apartments that finally give way to farmland and homes. In this area, farmers have up to about 5 acres of land to farm. To the left is the heavily guarded Han River, which is lined with a double barbed wire fence and a guard post every 100 yards. These posts are manned 24 hours a day by soldiers with machine guns at the ready. They are not leaning on the wall looking bored either. They are nearly at attention with their guns pointed at the river. The fence is equipped with floodlights and motion sensors as well. The dirt between the fences is raked every night so they can see any footprints the next day, just in case.
Most of the river does not actually front North Korea, but they have been known to send terrorists and infiltrators down the river at night, so it is heavily guarded on both sides. The North Koreans are more concerned with keeping their people in than keeping the South Koreans out. The highway itself looks innocent enough at first glance, but it incorporates a number of defenses, as well. This is due to the fact that it goes directly from the DMZ to Seoul and to the southern tip of South Korea.
So, what look like concrete overpasses to nowhere are anything but. In reality, they are tank blockades. If there is an invasion, they blow out the pillars and tons of concrete falls onto the road to slow down the advance. Are those billboards? Well, they do have real ads on them, but behind them are huge artillery emplacements pointed north to protect the city. Atop every hill, there are manned guard posts constantly watching for anything unusual. They aren’t watching the people, but rather looking at the river and beyond.
We aren’t allowed to take pictures in the direction of the river lest it give away anything to the enemy. Otherwise, we can photograph anything we choose to. The guide informs us of their history and the tragedy of the war, how families were separated and still are, etc. The entire population was evacuated to the southern city of Pusan during the war as more of the country fell to the communists.
As we get closer to Unification Park, the road starts to dwindle to two lanes, then one. The defenses become more obvious because at this point, North Korea is just across the river. There is even a fake town of high-rises built by the North Koreans on the hills across the way. No one lives there, it is just for show. They build this kind of thing while their people starve. Aren’t they fun? The hills on the North Korean side of the river are completely devoid of vegetation. Our side is covered with trees. They don’t want any trees to hinder their view or to provide a hiding place for people who might try to swim to freedom.
There is a super fast train on the South Korean side that is now complete and just waiting for the North Koreans to connect to it to make the route complete all the way into China. Fat chance at this point. But, nonetheless, the gleaming stations sit shining in the sun just waiting for the first passengers. Our guide says that when President Bush proclaimed North Korea part of the “Axis of Evil,” it completely screwed up the plan. The South Koreans were not amused and the North Koreans slammed the door for the umpteenth time.
Unification Park houses a collection of monuments to a variety of groups who died during the war. There is a Monument to the Strategic Battlefield, a memorial Monument to the U.S. Combat Forces, a monument in memory of officials killed in the Rangoon Bombing in 1983, the Unification Altar, and the actual train that is still where it was stopped when the country was divided.
Here also, is the Freedom Bridge that spans the Imjin River. This used to be a highway bridge, but now it goes nowhere. Korean citizens are not allowed to go any further north than this park and all traffic is strictly regulated to infrequent tours and officials on business. Our guide can only go to the DMZ because she is leading our tour. Otherwise, she could not go further than this.
There is also an amusement park of sorts that is completely incongruous in such a solemn place, but maybe they are just trying to show North Korea that they can’t stop them from having fun? Who knows. Still, it’s very odd.
Of course, there is a restaurant and souvenir shop. As we are walking back to the bus, one woman, who never stops talking by the way, says to us, “I wanted to buy something, but they only speak Korean!” Dave is fed up and says, “You do know you are in Korea, right?” She realizes she sounds like a jerk and claims she isn’t complaining. Believe us, she is, and continues to do so non-stop day in and day out. We know we sound like complainers from this diary, but we never say any of this out loud. It’s for our own amusement and yours. By the way, we had no problem making a purchase because we asked politely, “Do you speak English?” She didn’t, but she fetched someone who did. That’s how it works, isn’t it?
We continue along the road, now devoid of most traffic, to Camp Bonifas. The road has blockades that require the bus to zigzag the entire way. A bridge has huge steel gates that can be closed at any time to block tanks. We have to pass through several army checkpoints along the way and this is even before we reach the camp.
Camp Bonifas is located about 400 yards south of the southern boundary of the Demilitarized Zone. All guests must pass through here and receive a briefing before continuing to the Joint Security Area (JSA) administered by the United Nations. Before we can enter the camp, a list of passport numbers is checked. Once inside the camp, we have to transfer from the tourist bus to army busses so prevent any sort of bomb being brought into it.
We have to sign a release before being allowed to go to the JSA:
THE JOINT SECURITY AREA ARE REQUIRED TO READ AND SIGN THE FOLLOWING:
The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry
into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy
action. The Joint Security Area is
a neutral but divided area guarded by United Nations Command military personnel
on the one side (South), and Korean People’s Army personnel on the other
(North). Guests of the United
Nations command are not permitted to cross the Military Demarcation Line into
the portion of the Joint Security Area under control of the Korean People’s
Army. Although incidents are not
anticipated, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the
Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held
accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.
Visitors must comply with the following instructions:
Any questions concerning the above information should be brought to
the attention of the tour guide.
Is that intimidating enough for you? After signing this form, we received a briefing about the area and a short history by a U.S. Army soldier. Then we went back out to the busses for the short ride to the JSA.
After passing through the checkpoint, there is a wide stretch of serene forest that disguises a mine field. There is also a small farming village called Freedom Village where only farmers who lived in the area prior to the war are allowed to live. They have a strict curfew and must be inside by 11:00pm with all doors and windows secured. They can leave whenever they want to from dawn to dust. Otherwise, they can’t get in or out. The advantage for them is that they get 17 acres to farm and have no taxes to pay, so they can make up to $80,000.00 per year, which is very very good for this country. Needless to say, this area is quite tense, so we have to drive around several more barricades to reach the entrance to the JSA.
The village of Panmunjom was destroyed during the Korean War. In order to negotiate the Armistice, a tent city was constructed. In the years that followed each side constructed its own buildings in the JSA and today there are 24 buildings in the area which is approximately 800 yards in diameter. JSA houses the Advance Secretariat of the UNCMAC and various offices and conference rooms.
A Joint Duty Office representative from each side is required to remain at the JSA 24 hours daily in order to rapidly respond to any incident. The JSA straddles the DMZ. In fact, the Military Demarcation Line passes through the center of the Military Armistice Commission Building and the table within. The 4 KPA guard posts south of the MDL were dismantled following the negotiations that occurred after the 1976 Axe Murder Incident where KPA guards attacked U.S. personnel attempting to trim a tree blocking the view of the Bridge of No Return. This gate is where prisoners of war were allowed to choose which side to return to, but they could never return from whichever side they chose.
The North Korean Propaganda Village and the Republic of Korea Freedom Village are south of the JSA and can be identified by the huge national flags flying overhead. The North Korean flag in the Propaganda Village is so large that it must be taken down in wet weather or it will tear itself under its own weight. The flag in the Freedom Village was a gift from the Olympic Committee and is the one that flew over the Olympic Stadium.
This Propaganda Village is home to no one except maintenance workers who keep up the facades of the fake high-rise buildings. What appear to be windows are really painted black boxes on the walls. Gigantic speakers blast propaganda six to twelve hours a day, usually at night, that can be heard in the Freedom Village.
Examples of the underhandedness of the North, several huge tunnels have been discovered over the years. These tunnels are large enough to accommodate an army and tanks of 30,000 per hour to invade the south. It is assumed that there are replacements under construction, so they are constantly searching for them.
Visitors arrive at the ultra modern Unification Hall that was built in anticipation of families meeting from the north, which is always thwarted by the north at the last minute. It is also an effort to outdo the austere North Korean version across the line. Their building is tilted forward to make it appear larger than it actually is. We are instructed to walk directly from the building and across a narrow street, “DO NOT STOP”, and into the small MAC building.
The MAC building houses a conference table bisected by the MDL. The cords on the microphones designate the line. At one time each side’s flag was placed on the table, but they kept getting bigger until they no longer fit inside. Now, a United Nations flag sits on the table. The north listens to all conversations that go on here 24 hours a day and their guards sometimes come down to stare at visitors from the windows on their side of a concrete marker in the ground. They did not do this today.
As long as visitors are present, South Korean soldiers stand at attention, half protected behind the neighboring buildings, to watch for any aggressive behavior. They wear mirrored sunglasses and stand in a Tae Kwon Do position to appear more threatening.
The North Koreans watch everything from a watchtower and the building across the way. A guard stands by the stairs, but someone is also watching through a tiny window to his left. They also watch from towers and march in plain sight of our group.
We are again instructed not to stop and walk directly back into the Unification Hall. From there, we ascend a pagoda (close up detail) attached to the building where we have a panoramic view of the entire compound. There is another large building called Freedom House that houses offices for the south. In the center is a Unification Memorial that replaced what was a sunken garden. This sunken area was filled in after a Russian defector rushed across to the south, pursued by guards firing at him, to hide here. They aren’t so much concerned about defectors, but they discovered that the design would make it possible for infiltrators to hide as well. On each side of the blue MAC building are North Korean buildings made of silver metal. One is called the People's Recreation Hall, but it is completely empty.
Next we boarded the busses for a short trip to another checkpoint where we could view the site of the Axe Murders, the Bridge of No Return, and the Propaganda Village on the hills. We can also see rusty signs and small white posts that are the actual dividing line, the huge speakers on the northern side for broadcasting propaganda, and some huge signs that proclaim the greatness of their leader and deride America. There is also a North Korean office of some sort and a string of watchtowers.
Again, the photo ban is in force as we drive back through the mine field to Camp Bonifas. We park in front of The Monastery, which is really a gift shop and small commissary for the soldiers. There is also a Flag Plaza and plaque honoring the 16 nations who provided combat forces to the Republic of Korea during the Korean war and a Memorial to remember those soldiers whose deeds made them “Forever in Front of Them All.” The camp houses some recreation facilities and other support services for the few hundred soldiers stationed here.
We found this part of the tour immensely interesting, but we really wish they hadn’t wasted five hours getting here. When we were told the drive back to the port is only an hour from here, we were even more annoyed. This entire thing could easily have been done in 3-4 hours.
The drive is directly back to Inchon along the modern Freedom Highway, always bounded on one side by barbed wire and guards towers along the river. There are gun emplacements behind billboards as well as additional weapons beneath camouflage nets at every hill and valley. Bridges on the river side are equipped so that they can be easily destroyed to prevent tanks from using them. The river has been cemented in under one huge bridge to prevent another enemy submarine from sneaking up the river into Seoul as happened several years ago.
Traffic is ridiculous at 5:00pm, just as at home. We didn’t arrive back at the ship until 7:15pm. The second bus arrived even later than that. We heard from one of the butlers that people on other tours were complaining about being bored and seeing pretty much nothing. Everyone whined about how disorganized things were today. By the look on Renato’s face, we’re sure he already knows this.
Roxanne asked us later how we felt about it. We just told her what we already told you. That we were happy with the part we actually signed up for, but the extra five hours were a waste of time.
Tonight’s dress code is Casual/50’s. Bill participated by wearing jeans and a white t-shirt with black shoes. He tried to borrow a pack of cigarettes from Susanna to roll up in his sleeve, but it was the soft kind and it didn’t work. Dave wore jeans, but only because that’s what he already had on from the tour today. So few people participate in this that they give you dirty looks when you walk around in jeans and a t-shirt. In other words, they have no clue there is a theme at all.
the Soup Kettle
Blue Plate Special
Food review: The Corn Bisque is back to normal, and is again outstanding. Both entrees were very good, as well. Dessert was good, but a microscopic portion.
We received a bottle of wine from Adair, so we’re supplied for another few days. Jerry and Ger wanted to hear about the DMZ, but Augusto kept interrupting to talk about some problems he is having in his life. We listened, but they are of his own creation, so there’s not much we can say to him about it. We did have a chance to talk to Jerry for quite a while after most guests had left, but he never got to the point.
Tonight’s production show is “Rock Around the Clock.” It was OK, but not great. Hardly anyone was there for obvious reasons. We can’t understand why they would waste a production show on a port day when everyone is tired and goes to bed early. They also had the usual 50’s Midnight Buffet. It’s nice to get popcorn for a change, but the food goes to waste for the most part, particularly on a night like this.
Weather conditions continue to be rather chilly today, as well as extremely windy. None of this makes any difference to us since it is a sea day. The water is rough, but we can’t feel much movement from it.
We’re quite exhausted today and plan to do mostly nothing. Not that that is unusual, but it just might be possible to do even less than we usually do. There is an American Classic Buffet around the Neptune Pool, but it is only 54 outside. No thanks, we’ll go to the Dining Room for lunch.
Bill stopped by the Concierge Desk to discuss the limo arrangements at the end of the cruise. She doesn’t seem to understand that we are together, so she keeps calling him about it even though we’ve already turned in one form. Since we are apparently entitled to two cars of some sort, we’re going to ask for a limo for us and a van for all of our stuff. Might as well get whatever we can, right?
the Soup Kettle
Food review: The quesadillas were very good, as usual. Dessert was satisfactory. We were going to let Augusto make Bananas Foster for us tonight because we don’t want anything on the menu, but he had already ordered soufflés for us.
We stopped at the Concierge Desk so Dave could make a more forceful request for end-of-cruise transportation. When you ask directly, you get whatever you want. So, we have a limo for us and a luggage truck for our stuff. No charge to us, of course, since we are really entitled to two cars anyway because we didn’t use the 20th Milestone limo perk.
Ger came to the cabin at 2:30pm because he wanted some photos of a penthouse. We invited him to sit, so he stayed and talked until 4:30pm. He’s very nice and interesting to talk to. He only talks to us when Jerry goes in the kitchen. Technically, Ger is only supposed to fetch food from the kitchen, but all of the assistants serve and chat with guests. But, Jerry follows instructions to the letter, so there is a bit of a problem with it in this case. No matter, Ger just ignores the rules and talks to us outside of the Dining Room instead. He just wanted to be sure we didn’t think he was being rude by walking away when Jerry is around. We assured him we had already figured it out.
We received confirmations of our private tour arrangements for our upcoming ports in Japan. We’ll sure be glad when we are through touring and can go back to doing nothing for the last two weeks of the cruise.
Tonight’s dress code is Formal (again!). You know there are too many Formal Nights when they run out of production shows to go with them. There is always a production show on these evenings under normal circumstances.
the Soup Kettle
Food review: The fruit in the appetizer was hard as a rock, which seems to be the norm these days. Jerry warned us that the Manhattan Clam Chowder is really Boston Clam Chowder (we informed him that the name is New England, but he said wait until we see it.) When he brought it, he said, “never mind, now it’s Manhattan.” No, it isn’t. Manhattan Clam Chowder is not a cream soup, which this was. It’s sort of an orange color. It was good, but not correct. The Turf part of the entrée was undercooked, but tasty. The Crab Cakes were a Crab CAKE, but extremely good. Augusto had taken it upon himself to order Chocolate Chip Soufflés for us. They were very good, as well.
Jerry wanted to see our photos from the DMZ, so we stayed after dinner and showed them to him. Dave also had to provide a history lesson about the whole thing. He thought it was scary, which, of course, it was. It’s probably much more disturbing for him because he’s from Poland and it’s like a flashback.
We advised Augusto to confront his problem and stop avoiding it. He thought that was a good idea, which it is, by the way.
Tonight’s entertainment is another Variety Showtime featuring the Dance Team of Curtis and Natalie, and, topping the bill, “Comedian Extraordinaire,” Mike Goddard. We find it hard to believe that Mike isn’t capable of doing an entire hour as he has always done in the past. It is becoming apparent both from what we see every night and looking at the upcoming schedule, that they are really desperate for entertainment options. They’re trying to stretch what they have to fill more nights by making these variety shows with filler acts like the dance team. There is nothing wrong with them, but this is the same couple that conducts dance classes and they’ve been here since Los Angeles. OK, we’ve seen them already!
We arrived just as Mike’s part started. He’s extremely amusing and the place was packed. We stood in the back although we could have found a seat if we really wanted to.
Our bio appeared in tonight’s World Cruise newsletter. Well, it’s sort of accurate and almost what we told him. Suffice it to say, he didn’t take very good notes. Here is exactly what it said, so don’t blame us for the grammar:“It is my pleasure to introduce Bill Boyson and David Giddings. Bill was born and raised in Long Beach and Orange County of Southern California and worked locally for Disneyland. David was born nearby in Downey, CA and studied Russian history at Cal State Fullerton before working at Disneyland as well. Bill and David worked in the same department at Disneyland, but did not meet until they were introduced by a mutual friend. Bill claims that they both “specialize in doing absolutely nothing,” but David does dabble in an Internet business and enjoys cooking and hosting lavish dinner parties. They spent the last two years renovating a cabin in Lake Arrowhead, CA and completed the work a week before the world cruise commenced. They share a Golden Retriever, Jake, but are beginning to learn that it is mixed with an anonymous large breed as he keeps growing! Their favorite destinations include Venice, Paris and Northern Europe and currently reside in Laguna Niguel, CA.”
In case you are wondering, yes, Artie is American and speaks English.
Our cruising schedule has been adjusted for today to allow for a more convenient viewing of the passage through the Kanmon Straight. Now we are going through the narrowest part at 10:00am, rather than at the crack of dawn. It’s very cold and rainy today, so there really isn’t much to see anyway.
We did pass through the straight and out along the southern coast of Japan this morning. It was about as wide as cruising the Inside Passage in Alaska, so the towns along the way are clearly visible in spite of the poor weather. This part of the straight is very busy with traffic, so there was much whistle blowing and such the entire time. Once out in open water, which occurred just before lunchtime, it became extremely windy and rainy for the rest of the day.
No matter to us, we waited until lunchtime and went directly to the Dining Room.
the Soup Kettle
Food review: The Oriental Chicken Salad was barely edible and tasted vaguely metallic. The soup was satisfactory. Both entrees were very good.
The Dining Room was swamped, so they had to call down the waiters from the Lido to help. We haven’t seen it so full this entire cruise. Augusto said it’s because the weather is so bad and he is right. But, what difference does that make? The Lido is inside isn’t it? Oh well.
Needless to say, guests had no where to sit while lecturers, entertainers, and various other staff members sat at prime window tables and desirable tables for two. We know we harp on this issue, but it is so appalling to us that we have to keep mentioning it.
Mel and Barbara walked by and said we should sue Artie because our photo in the newsletter is so ghastly. Mel asked if we’re sure it is really us. It’s the same picture that is in the terrible Yearbook we received months ago. It isn’t just us, all of the photos are terrible.
We spent the rest of the afternoon attempting to catch up on uploading to the Website, but we were cut off so many times we gave up and decided to try again later. They really need to get their act together if they are going to claim we have state of the art connections here. Yes, it’s amazing we can connect at all, but don’t say it is something it isn’t when it is clear that they can’t deliver on the promise.
Bill tried to sort the pile of papers we have been tossing under the bed. He barely got it organized before we had to leave for dinner. When Rainer brought our snacks and left the door open, Susanna looked in and exclaimed, “Oh my God, what happened in there?” That was before he had picked it up. At that point piles of stuff were everywhere.
Tonight’s dress code is Casual. Susanna had to hear the true story of our bio in the newsletter, which prompted another gathering in the hallway with Rosalina and Rainer. We didn’t make it to the Dining Room until 9:20pm.
the Soup Kettle
Food review: The soup was very good, but not quite as wonderful as it has been before. Bill had the always available salmon for his entrée and it wasn’t as good as before either, although still acceptable. The chicken dish was well prepared, but not really what we had in mind. Augusto offered to make Bananas Foster for us, so we took him up on it. It was good, but reaffirms the fact that we don’t really care for the flambé desserts.
Jerry had carried on last night about how he lives for soccer. He spent the whole day in Seoul looking for World Cup souvenirs, but found none. When Bill was sorting today, he noticed that the package of pins we bought at the DMZ had a World Cup 2002 pin in the mix, so he gave it to Jerry. We have never seen anyone so excited to get a gift in our life! He practically jumped up and down. We caught him sneaking looks at it all night. He sure is a cheap date! However, we were really pleased that it meant so much to him.
Tonight’s entertainment is a Celebrity Liar’s Club. That’s it. Maybe they think this is a port day? Oh well. We stopped by the Front Desk to inquire about boxes and packing material and ended up chatting with Billy and Jessica for quite a while.The ship is already anchored in the bay off of Hiroshima. In fact, we arrived during dinner. We will not be cleared until the regularly schedule time at 8:00am tomorrow when we will actually dock. However, instead of sailing at 6:00pm tomorrow night, we will stay overnight and sail the following morning at 6:00am. So, if we decide we want to do something after our private 4-hour tour tomorrow, we can always take the free shuttle back to downtown. Now, if they will only extend the stay in Yokohama, we can go to DisneySea. We’re not holding our breath for that one.
It was still raining when we went to bed.
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