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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Beijing - Make sure you chew the air well before inhaling

March 18, 2017 - Day one  - Beijing - China

My trip to China gets off on the wrong foot – literally when I run over a cop’s foot with my luggage as I enter the airport.

“Hey! You!”
I look around to see who’s yelling.
“You, the asshole with the suitcase.  Watch where you're walking!”
He looks at his partner who glares at me and shakes his head.  I can read his thoughts:  He misses the good old days when he could Taser me into oblivion for such a miniscule offence and get away with it.
“He had a concealed stapler on him, your honor...   a Bosch 2210 with a full magazine - I had no choice.”

I apologize profusely and moon walk into a Chinese couple with a cart piled high with luggage nearly overturning it over then scuttle off to find the Air Canada check-in.  Fortunately I’m four hours early due to a last minute delay of my Air Canada flight to China. 

I arrive to find the Chinese couple I backed into in front of me in the check-in line.  They eye me warily keeping their distance from me.  I’m wondering how two people can have so much luggage.  It’s then that something occurs me:  I’m the only non-Asian in the line-up.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner
The rest of my check in goes smoothly and I proceed to my gate to wait for my flight to be called.  I’m flying a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner direct to Beijing.  The flight is packed, but I luck into a row that only has one other person in it. 

I usually give Air Canada a deserved hard time (“We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”) But I have to admit the service on this flight is pretty good, with meals carefully timed to arrive just as you finally nod off for a few minutes sleep.

Even though I’m a seasoned traveler I still approach every new adventure as if it’s a walk through a minefield – carefully playing over the hundreds of potential disasters that could befall me.  I find the best way to deal with this –besides copious amounts of drugs and alcohol - Is to break the trip down into “baby steps” and worry only about the immediate “step.”  

Hence:
  1. Get to Beijing without crashing, being hijacked or at the mercy of an insane or drunk pilot
  2. Manage to pass through immigration without being accused of being a spy or somehow messing up the information on my visa – or worse losing it.
  3. Finding my luggage (after finding the correct luggage carrousel).
  4. Find the person who is supposed to meet me and drive me to my hotel. 
  5.  Find an ATM machine –and hope my card works. 
  6. And most importantly – buy beer to reward myself for surviving steps 1 through 5.


Feng
Steps 1 through 3 play out fine, and as I step out of the luggage area, I’m greeted by an ocean of people holding up signs.  After a moment or two I spot my name on a sign.  I’m greeted by my On-the-Go guide, a short cheerful Chinese woman, named Feng – who informs me she is my tour guide.  We exit the airport where our driver is waiting and head off towards Beijing.

Land of the Dental Hygienists
The first thing that hits me is the smog:  a grey pink haze hangs over the sky - like Toronto on a bad summer smog day - but worse!  Feng informs me that the “smog isn’t bad today.”  I notice that a fair amount of people are wearing masks.  It looks like a convention of dental hygienists.  “I’m told that breathing is easier if you chew before you inhale. 

As we drive into Beijing I have to admit I’m blown away by the city.  Beijing is definitely the first mega-city of the twenty-first century.  Usually when you drive into a major city you travel through squalid slums, decaying buildings, and trash and garbage everywhere before you get to the modern part of the city.  Not here - everything is clean and new -the buildings, the roads the cars.  Beijing was cleaned up for the Olympics and the trend continues.  The other thing that catches my eye is the hundreds of building cranes – they’re building everywhere.  They don’t build one apartment tower – they build twenty of them (no exaggeration) in one site.  

Olympic "Birds Nest" Stadium
Another thing that impresses me is the architecture of their buildings - not typical glass towers – unique diverse and different shapes and sizes – all pleasing to the eye.  If the Chinese ever get the smog thing under control it will truly be an amazing city.  Feng tells me they have 36 nuclear reactors presently operating and another 20 under construction.  Also there’s a real push for electric vehicles – I notice the majority of motor scooters and motorcycles are electric.  So there’s a fog light at the end of the tunnel.

Yong An Hotel
It’s about a 45 minute ride to  the  Yong An Hotel.  I’m not sure what to expect.  You can’t trust on what you see on the internet.  They never show pictures showing a hovel.  The hotel in question always looks big bright and clean – until you arrive and find a roach hotel in the middle of a slum.   But in this case the pictures do the place justice – it’s a fairly new four building complex. 

Feng checks me in and escorts me to the room to make sure I’m happy.  The only problem I encounter is the closet safe.  The instructions are in Chinese and I accidently lock my passport in it without resetting the code.  Feng calls housekeeping and explains the problem (nobody speaks English).  The housekeeper, who must have been a safe-cracker in a previous life, or is an undercover spy, attempts to open it.  No luck.  There’s much conversation between Feng and then housekeeper and a call is made for a maintenance man.  He promptly arrives and tries his hand at safe cracking.  No luck.  He calls another guy.  By now they’ve tried so many times to open the safe the batteries have died.  A call is made for someone to bring batteries.  Now there are so many people in my room shouting at each other, that two security guards alerted by concerned guests in adjoining rooms arrive. 
A view of my room after all the hotel staff arrives

 My room begins to look like the cruise cabin in the Marx Brother’s “A Night at the Opera.”  

Eventually a “key” arrives and the safe is opened and my passport rescued.  

This only leaves one major item on my “baby steps” list - get money out of the ATM.  This is always a stress inducing exercise.  Will the card work?  Will I be able to read the instructions?  How much money will it give me?   Will it give me my card back at the end?

As soon as the crowd exits my room Feng walks me to the bank around the corner to help me deal with the ATM machine.  I’m glad because it’s now dark, and despite being assured it’s safe to walk the streets at night I’m worried – not about being mugged – but getting lost five seconds after  I walk out of the hotel. 

We walk to the closest bank and I plug my Scotia card into the machine and it’s immediately rejected.   Feng says not to worry we’ll walk a few blocks to bigger bank – interestingly called ICBC – it’s the second biggest bank in China.  I figure since we have ICBC in Canada (it’s a government car insurance company) – where you get to put money in and get money out when you crash your car I have a chance at getting some cash.

I try the Scotia card - it’s rejected again.  I begin to panic.  I have one other shot at getting cash if the Scotia card continues to not work –my backup card – a TD ATM card.  I plug that card in - it works.  Important lesson:  ALWAYS take TWO cash cards (from different banks) and make sure you call them in advance.  

With cash in hand we walk back to the hotel and stop on the way at the 7-11 for beer and water.

Back at the hotel Feng leave me, suggesting if I’m hungry there’s a lot of restaurants nearby.  I decide I’ve pressed my luck enough for one day and retreat to my room to watch Chinese curling on TV and drink tsingtao beer.
  

I’ve survived Day One.  Let the fun begin! Tomorrow morning I meet the rest of my group and head off to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Off to China

It seems I’ve just returned from Peru and I’m about to take off again – this time to China… or “Gina” as Donald Trump calls it.  It seems strange that after all my traveling – I haven’t visited China before. 

It’s a quick nine day tour with On the Go tours – a company I haven’t traveled with before – but comes highly recommended by my travel agent.  The nine day tour is called “Great Wall &Warriors”
and hits the  “must see” highlights - like Tianmen Square, the Terracotta warriors, the Great Wall, and Shanghai – all in about a week.

Unfortunately, Tom, my favourite traveling partner, won’t be going on this trip.  He’s been there – done that, so I’m on my own.    In order to acclimatize myself I’ve spent a few hours in Richmond wandering around the Yaohan and Aberdeen shopping  malls and taking my picture in front of stores with locals.  

Unlike most of my other trips this trip required a visa which was a bit of pain (and pricey) to get. There is an official visa office in Vancouver which made things somewhat easier.  I made an appointment online(highly recommended) and showed up to a huge room that reminded me of a dim-sum restaurant – except it didn’t have tables …  or food trolleys…  or food - but lots of Asian people and one or two  Caucasians  - sort of like Richmond.  I was told to take a number and wait.  However since I had a appointment I was at the front of the line, and within a couple of minutes was at a wicket where my documents were carefully scrutinized before I was told to come back in five days to pick up my (hopefully) processed Visa.

I showed up five days later, and given the express treatment I received when applying I expected to be out of the office in a few minutes – after all, I only had to pick it up and pay for it.  How long could that take?  Evidently a long long time - it seems the visa office has 12 wickets to process applications but only two wickets to pay for them.  

I should mention if you’re on a cruise, or only passing through China on a short stay over, you might not require a visa - so check out visa requirements BEFORE (as many people do) assuming they need a visa and go to the expense and time to get one.


So with my new visa firmly cemented into my passport I’m off the China tomorrow.  I’ll keep you informed on my adventures.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In Distill of the Night

Friday November 25th

 This is our last full day on the Amazon and I’m determined to make the most of it by getting up early for the “optional” early morning bird watching trip.  I’m not alone – everyone else is there – even Tom and Fen show up on time.  They’ve seem to have finally adapted to Amazon time.  I shudder to think what life will be like when they try to re-adjust to Vancouver time.

The idea is to be on the water just at dawn when the birds wake up.   The trip from the Amatista takes about five minutes and we’re sitting just off a low island waiting for the bird alarm clock to go off.  As the sun begins to peek over the horizon the air is suddenly filled with thousands of green parakeets rising from the marshes and circling in clouds above us.  The noise from the flocks is so loud you can’t hear yourself talk.   Cloud after cloud of brightly coloured birds rise from the marshes. After a few minutes silence settles once more on the river - the whole thing takes less than half an hour. 
The Rum distillery 
After breakfast our itinerary calls for us to visit a rum distillery.  After yesterday’s trip to the butterfly farm I don’t have high expectations.    Usually when you think of a distillery you think of a huge brick edifice.  Not in this case – why am I not surprised.     It’s basically a couple of garden sheds – but you should never judge a book by its cover or a distillery by its building. 
sugarcane delivery device
It’s essentially a low tech operation: The sugarcane is hauled in on the backs of burros and taken directly into the “processing room.”  Here it is crushed by equipment that dates back to the late bronze age. 

putting tourists to work
Our host, anxious to demo the whole process to us, fires up the crusher engine, which coughs and splutters to life creating a deafening roar which reverberates off the corrugated walls.  The room fills with a blue cloud of hydrocarbons which I’m sure will add a distinctive “smoky” taste to the final product.

The sugar cane is then dumped into a huge caldron so old it has an
...and to think these barrels just held oil 
actual autograph by Al Capone engraved on it.   The crushed sugar can is aged in an this vat for  24 hours and the temperature carefully monitored to make sure it’s a constant “whatever,” and then it’s moved to the distiller room.

The distiller  room is so small it can’t  accommodate all of our group on the ground floor so some of us are hustled  up to balcony overlooking  the still – sorry, “distillation unit.”  This is not a particularly good idea – not just because the balcony is pretty rickety and doesn’t have any sort of railings around it; but because of the alcoholic fumes rising from the distiller.  Several of the group are already beginning to feeling the effects and are look woozy.  – I begin to worry a couple of them might do a header into the distiller.  


The high tech distiller
Our host takes a rusty tin cup fills it from the distiller and passes it around for us to sample.  It tastes like jet fuel and I’m careful not to spill any of it on the floor lest it eat its way through the floor like the drool from the monster in the film Alien.  

The medical benefits
We are then hustled into the tasting room which doubles as a tack storage area when it’s not being used for tasting.   The walls are festooned with posters espousing the “medicinal” benefits of this particular rum.    We are seated at Formica tables and provided shot glasses.  Our host brings out some offerings which we will be able to sample with hopes we might purchase a couple of bottles before leaving.  There are two product lines:  dark and light.

Unlike fine whiskey we are encouraged to knock back these samples “like they’re tequila shots.” We’re even provided lime and salt.   Evidently this rum is more pleasing to the palate if it doesn’t  actually touch the palate.  We’re told that it tastes better if it’s allowed to age a bit.
“When was this stuff bottled?” I ask.
“Yesterday,” he replies.
“Ah, that explains it,” I reply. “Perhaps the next time they bury a pharaoh they can stick a few cases of this in the pyramid with him to give it a bit more time to age.”

If I hold my nose I might not taste it
The next bottle we sample is of the dark variety.  That’s because it’s infused with extract from the bark of the Chuchuhuasi tree.  (try saying that three times very quickly after three shots of it).  The Chuchuhuasi (Maytenus krukovii) is a very large canopy tree, whose bark has been used a general remedy by Shamans (“witch doctors” - see earlier post) for many centuries.  It’s supposed to be good for arthritis, rheumatism, back pain, relieving menstrual pain and removing paint.

I don’t know if it’s the earlier three shots of the “light” rum I’ve just imbibed that has totally destroyed all the taste buds in my mouth, but by comparison it isn’t too bad.  I decide to buy a bottle to take home for my wife to use in making her liquor filled Christmas chocolates.   It’s not until I return home I realize this might be a mistake.

(Flash forward 3 weeks later at our Chrismaskah Party:)
“My, Michele, this chocolate has an interesting taste.  What’s it filled with?  Cognac?Drambuie? Baileys?”
“No, it’s something Jeff brought back from the Amazon.”
“Sort of tastes like Buckley’s.  Hey! I think my sinuses are clearing up!”

(back at the distillery)
Tom on his high horse
Tom, who is not much of a drinker, is feeling no pain after 5 shots, so I have little trouble convincing him that an old saddle hanging from the rafters is an early version of a mechanical bull.  Tom sets a new distillery record managing to stay in the saddle for an amazing 11 seconds.

Clutching our bottles we stagger back down to the skiffs for the trip back to the Amatista, c
offee and pledges of sobriety.



Saturday, November 26th

Scenic Iquitos "Jewel of the Amazon"
It’s the last day of our trip.   We’ve been instructed to have our bags packed and outside of our rooms before breakfast.  Everybody’s bags are outside their cabin doors but one….  
“Oooh!  Ooh! I meant to back them last night but I fell asleep.”

While we’re eating breakfast mounds of luggage are moved into the skiffs and transported to the waiting bus.   
Downtown Iquitos
We bid farewell to the crew of the Amatista and head into Iquitos where we’ll have a brief tour of the city and then be hustled off to the airport for an early afternoon flight back to Lima.

Iquitos is the capital city of Peru’s Mayanas Province and Loreto Region. The city of nearly half a million people is only accessible by river and air.  There are no roads connecting it to the rest of Peru.

Iquitos is sort of the Yukon city of Peru.  While the Canadian city was founded as a result of the Gold Rush of the 1880’s, Iquitos grew up to a major city as a result of the Rubber Boom which occurred about the same time as Yukon Gold Rush. 

Gustave Eiffel's Iron House
The early European inhabitants known as the “Rubber Barons”( or less affectionately  as “Robber Barons” by the local population) tried to import all the comforts of home.  Besides European cultural institutions like an opera house, Iquitos was among the first South American cities to have electricity and electric street lights.  The “old” portion of Iquitos centered around the Plaza de Armas still features a few buildings from the boom days including the famous Casa de Fierro (iron house) allegedly designed by Gustave Eiffel for the Paris exhibition  of 1900.  It was then bought by one of the local rubber barons and shipped in pieces to Iquitos to be bolted back together to serve as his home.   There is actually some dispute as to whether Gustave actually designed it.  There is no resemblance whatsoever to the Eiffel tower.  He claims it was built in his student days as a tool shed. 

The "Meccano House"

I actually did some research into the matter.  The house more closely resembles a Meccano house
Then the Eiffel Tower.  I discovered that Meccano was invented by Frank Hornby who lived in England about the same time as Eiffel.  What’s even more interesting is that he set up one of his early Meccano factories in France…..   I’m going to suggest they rename it the Meccano House.  Now if they can only find that special mecanno tool.. .

It had rained heavily before we arrived in Iquitos but now the sun has come out and the temperature is in the high 30s.  So instead of being baked we’re now being steamed.  Our tour mercifully only lasts about twenty minutes before we’re hustled onto a shuttle bus for the trip to the airport and our  1:00pm flight back to Lima.  Unfortunately things do not go as planned.  Peru airports are generally organized chaos and the small airport in Iquitos is no exception.  The automated check-in machines don’t work so we line-up to be checked in manually.  After about forty minutes the counter staff finally begin to arrive.  It’s only when the first of us attempt to check-in we’re told the flight has been cancelled - due to weather.  There might be another plane at eight that evening.

Our guides who thought they were rid of us once they dropped us at the airport hastily arrange for transportation back to Iquitos where we are given day privileges at the one and only five star hotel. 

Given we have about six hours to kill, I take off with to explore the town and hopefully find a few more gifts to take home.  I find a small museum on a side street.  It turns out to be one of nicest museums on the trip.  Of course there weren’t any other museums in the Amazon.  I discover they have  a gift shop with some jewelry made by local tribes.   Compared to the junk I’d seen in the small villages we visited this stuff looks pretty high class !  I pick a couple of small bracelets for my older grandchildren, and then spy a beaded necklace I think my wife might like.   (Full disclosure: I have to tell you my wife had distinctly told me.  Don’t bring me back any more jewelry.  Evidently I have atrocious taste.)   But I can’t resist – and it is only ten dollars!  

When I get back to the hotel I show it several of the women on the tour and they assure me my wife would love it.  (Evidently I didn’t pick up on the eye rolling.)

When I got home I present my find to my wife.
“You don’t expect me to wear that?” she says holding it at arms length.  “I thought I told you.  No gifts.”
“Well what should I do with it?” I ask.
“Why don’t you give it to your daughter-in-law,” she suggested. “She might like it.”

The next day my daughter-in-law shows up with Violet, my three year old granddaughter in tow.  I haul out the necklace and held it out to her.
“Oh, it’s lovely!” She exclaims.
I give my wife a knowing look.  Obviously my daughter-in-law has impeccable taste.
“Violet will love it,” she says fastening it around the three year old’s neck.
Well at least my granddaughter has taste.  She wears it all the time.

We’re fed an early dinner then  hustled back onto the bus for the ten minute trip back to the airport.  This time we manage to make the eight o’clock flight that leaves promptly at nine, getting into Lima barely in time for several of our group to make their connection to their flights home. 

The rest of us are put into a van for the supposedly one hour trip back to our hotel in Lima.  Unfortunately there are several accidents on the road and the trip takes over two hours.  We arrive at the hotel shortly after midnight.  


So, our Amazon tour ends with a whimper – not a bang. 

That's it until the next trip.  If you're planning a trip to the Amazon, you might check out  15 Things You Should Know Before Touring the Peruvian Amazon on Johnny Jet.  This is the link to the GAdventures tour I was on.   Hope you all enjoyed reading about the trip as much as I enjoyed living it.