Category Archives: China

Beijing’s Summer Palace Revisited

Crowds, crowds and did I mention crowds?

We are en route from the U.S. to Tibet with a day in Beijing — my third visit to China’s capital. The first was in 1999, and even superficial changes since then are stunning. Built into the Road Scholar itinerary were a couple of hours in the stunning Summer Palace, a grandiose and  elaborate treasure from the old Chinese Empire. It was crowded when I first visited, but now, there are more people, more photo and video stops,  plus selfie sticks that did not exist then.

The standard route through the palace remains unchanged — a walk through the gates, across a courtyard or two, a scenic walk with an artificial lake on one side and a lovely arcade on the other, a look at the famous stone boat and a ride across the lake to a landing near the exit. Here are some pictures from my visit. As you can see, taking any without a lot of people was a challenge, but taking them with a crowd was as simple as pointing the camera anywhere along the standard route.

Located 9 miles from downtown, this is the largest and best-preserved royal park in China.  Construction began in 1750 as a setting for royal families to rest and entertain, and many of its features of combining natural and enhanced landsscapes have served as a model for Chinese gardens. Heavily damaged, it was twice rebuilt and In 1924, it was opened to the public. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a leading attraction for foreign and domestic visitors.

The basic walk-through tour at lake level and boat ride are standard on most city tours,  but it is possible to reach the Summer Palace by public transportation and visit are leisure. Click here and scroll down for details.

A British Peek at North Korea

Observations from the rare Western tour group.

The Chinese city of Dandong has the easternmost section of the Great Wall. It also enables curious tourists to glimpse the formidable, secretive country North Korea just across the Yalu River. “Want to see North Korea? Head to Dandong, China,” a CNN Travel report on this curious spot, reports on the contrast between the two on-and-off friends.

It is, of course, almost impossible for Westerners to set foot in North Korea, and Americans would be wise not even put it on their bucket lists. But Hilary Bradt, founder of the highly regarded Bradt Travel Guides, visited with Regent Holidays and filed this blog report called “Hilary Bradt in North Korea.” I’m not sure when she made this guided and controlled excursion, but I just stumbled on it toady and wanted to share it.

Toilet Tales from China

Modernizing fast, but not always well. One exploded recently.

dsc01064One of the things that distresses many Western visitors to China are the public toilets. Most are very clean (attendants are often on hand in public restrooms to make sure), but squat toilets still predominate. Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, just don’t like them.

Even as China is building the tallest skyscrapers, the highest bridges, the longest tunnels and the most bullet trains, it is addressing more basic needs by modernizing public toilets, which in places other than tourist areas badly needed modernizing.

It doesn’t always go well. One person was killed and seven injured when a build-up of gas (methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide) in sewer pipes caused a public toilet to explode in northwestern China on New Year’s Eve.  A blast in Yulin, Shaanxi Province, caused a new toilet building to collapse. One person was killed and several were injured, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. Despite the inevitable jokes, it was no laughing matter.

Clean but not comfortable for many Westerners.
Clean but not comfortable for many Westerners.

Chinese toilets in public buildings (including at highway rest stops) come in two basic styles, “squatters” and “seats.” Squatters are porcelain fixtures at floor level, with places for the user’s feet. Seats are closer to Western-style.

Except in fancy hotels and restaurants, toilet paper is not provided. BYO — or, if you are on a tour, be grateful that tour buses usually have a supply. In many places, there is a waste basket next to the toilet. That’s where the TP goes. Flushing might often clog up that delicate plumbing.

Perhaps the most bizarre toilet I encountered was a concrete trench near a historic fort not far from Wenzhou.  A waist-high “privacy” wall enabled two women to squat over different parts of the trench. A flow of running water flushed it. I didn’t have my camera so sadly could not take a picture. #SATWChina

China Travel: Signs to Make You Smile

Disclaimer: I have nothing but admiration for people from China or any other Asian country who learn to communicate in English or any other Western language.  But some signs I saw during a recent three-week visit to China did make me chuckle. So with respect, I share these with you:dsc00344

"Abandoned kindling," a sign at Shanghai's Pudong Intl Airport, seems to mean "Matches."
“Abandoned kindling,” a sign at Shanghai’s Pudong Intl Airport, seems to mean “Matches.”

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Many signs tell visitors what not to do.
Many signs tell visitors what not to do.

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China Travel Report: A Wrap-Up

Observations from my fourth visit to China since 1999.

satw-logoThe first time I went to China was to see the fabled Three Gorges of the Yangtze before the completion of the grand dam at Sandoping. The second time was to experience skiing in Heilongjiang Province, north of North Korea. The third was to see the completed dam and sail through a lock. And the fourth time was for the Society of American Travel Writers 2016 Convention. Here are some observations about the China scene:

  • In cities, more skyscrapers and residential highrises (many built on former farmland on the outskirts).  The national bird of China is the construction crane.
  • Incredible transportation infrastructure improvements. To try to help those of the country’s 1.385 billion who wish to get around do so, there are new tollroads, new bullet trains and new metros all over this sprawling country. China is working hard to provide public transportation, but those who can afford them remain enamored of their cars.
  • Whistle-clean cities, kept that way by squadrons of street cleaners — individuals with brooms. Part of the full-employment situation.
  • Still a lot of smoking, but a lot less public spitting than during my previous visits.
  • Tourist-oriented vendors moved from the entrances to major attractions (such as the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an) to the exits,
  • Serious commitment to recycling.
  • Impressive tree-planting projects in cities, as former dense low-rise neighborhoods are replaced by far taller buildings with significantly smaller footprints.
  • Creation of more and more “scenic areas” and “cultural attractions” for the benefit of both domestic and international visitors.

Ride High Over Las Vegas in a “Super Wheel”

World’s biggest Ferris Wheel derivative is Sin City’s newest attraction.

LasVegas-signIn Las Vegas, the house always wins. It is the site of the world’s largest “observation wheel,” several generations removed from the old-time Ferris wheel. With the inauguration of the High Roller launched yesterday with champagne-bottle-breaking fanfare, Las Vegas has won bragging rights for the world’s largest observation wheel for now.

The SkyView HighRoller, or HighRoller Sky Vue, or some other ame welcomed its first passengers yesterday.
A rendering of the SkyViue High Roller or High Roller SkyVue, which welcomed its first passengers yesterday.

It is 550 feet high with 28 40-passenger stand-up glass cabins suspended on the outside of the wheel so as not to obstruct the view. The cabins are designed to revolve around SkyVue, an enormous LED screen promoted as “one of the most effective advertising platforms in the world….With over 100,000 square feet of high definition LED screen, SkyVue integrates the bright lights of Times Square with the eye popping views with the London Eye.”

If eyeballs from pedestrians and people in vehicles the ground aren’t enough, SkyVue screen on the High Roller is visible to more than 39 million airline passengers a year as they take off and land at nearby McCarran Airport, along with guests at high-rise hotels whose rooms look toward it. Caesar’s Entertainment, the High Roller’s developer, sold the naming rights to SkyVue for $1.2 million.

VitalVegas.com, an award-winning local blog, has tempered its enthusiasm for this spectacular attraction, noting:

“SkyVue, plagued by rumors of financial problems and construction delays, was considered by some to be an unlikely candidate to get naming rights to what industry insiders consider “a competing attraction.” Caesars Entertainment, however, felt otherwise. Caesars Entertainment has not been without financial turmoil of its own. The company has approximately $24.5 billion (yes, billion) in debt, or about what it would cost to purchase Paraguay.”

Still, the waiting line for the inaugural day of the super-sized observation wheel was measured at five hours — but maybe that was just to be the first to ride it. The cost is $30 for a 30-minute ride. Each cabin can accommodate a roll-in bar for an intimate private party — even a modest wedding. Reports are that the first marriage proposal occurred on opening day.

This Vegas attraction is the latest entry in what I think of as the “wonder wheel wars.” In the US, contenders are the High Roller (550 feet) and 190 meter (623 feet) the New York Wheel (623 feet), which was scheduled to start construction “early in 2014” on, of all places, Staten Island. Elsewhere, the Singapore Flyer (541 feet), the Star of Nanchang in southeastern China (525 feet) and the London Eye (443 feet) reign over their respective landscapes. Construction was supposed to begin last April on Bluewaters Island, a new island that I believe was recently completed in Dubai, will be the site of The Dubai Eye (650 feet), which will surpass its existing and planned rivals — until China or someone else comes up with an even bigger one.

It is not Las Vegas’s first High Roller — and I’m not counting humans. In 1996, a steel roller coaster called the High Roller opened on top of  the 909-foot Stratosphere Tower, the tallest free-standing observation tower in the country. It wasn’t all that popular, was difficult to maintain and was dismantled in 2005.

Sun Peaks Celebrates Chinese New Year

Resort in the Canadian Rockies ready for the Year of the Horse

YearOfTheHorseOn the Chinese calendar, January 30 marks the beginning of the Year of the Horse, and the beguiling mountain resort of Sun Peaks , British Columbia, is celebrating  its first Chinese New Year event from January 31 to February 2. Guests and locals can usher in the Year of the Horse with fireworks, traditional decorations, Asian food and cultural activities.

Festivities begin on Friday with the distribution of red envelopes  decorated with characters representing happiness and wealth, and participating  village restaurants feature Asian-inspired cuisine to get diners in the spirit. On Saturday, guests can participate in an afternoon Tai  Chi session, watch street dancers perform and gaze at a freshly hewn, life-sized ice sculpture of a horse. Children’s activities introduce them to the cultural significance of the occasion. The  evening culminates with fire dancing, a Year of the Horse torchlight  parade and traditional Chinese fireworks, all visible from the village base.

The weekend includes a Chinese New Year Dinner on Friday evening Mantles Restaurant. The Sun Peaks Spa is offering a special treatment from January 31 to February 13, featuring a hot foot soak with sunflower petals to wish guests good luck all year, compression, tapotment and reflexology massage techniques and a hydrating mango mandarin butter massage. Capping the weekend’s celebratory offerings is a dim sum brunch (“dim yum!,” I call it) on Sunday.

Guest Post: 4 Real Places of Unreal Beauty

Blue Fire Public Relations submitted the following guest post, including the links. I’m pretty picky about guest posts, but I really liked the four images on this one and wanted everyone else with the travel bug to see them. I edited the guest post very slightly.

The globe has been trotted, mapped and conquered, yet natural beauty remains and continues to beckon adventure seekers. From sprawling Asia to hometown America, the world is covered in wonders. Though the pictures may make you believe they’re from a fantasy land, here are four amazing places that actually exist:

Wulingyuan Scenic Area (Hunan, China)

Wulingyan Scenic Area

With 243 peaks surrounded by more than 3,000 karst upthrusts, Wulingyuan scenic area is filled with waterfalls, limestone caves and rivers unlike any other, according to LonelyPlanet.com. Located just outside of Zhangjiajie city, the subtropical forest of the park is locally known as the inspiration for James Cameron’s the idea for the floating mountains in “Avatar.” In 2010, Gadling.com reported that city officials renamed a peak called “Southern Sky Column” in hopes to draw more crowds to the park. The new name of the peak? “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.”  (Photo from Flickr user Jetske / Jetske19)

Writer’s Tip: The Zhongtian International Youth Hostel, located in Zhangjiajie city, has a sister branch on the mountain. If you stay there, you can pay to have your bags transported between the two hostels; just keep your personal information, passport and picture ID on you. My comment: When I visited China soon after the opening of the Three Gorges cam, the itinerary included a designated scenic area near Yichang, downstream from the dam. Tucked into a valley not far from the is a scenic area in which reenactors are (or were) stationed to demonstrate traditional fishing, agricultural and domestic skills.

Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)

Old Faithful

Found in America’s first national park and known as America’s best-known geyser, Old Faithful is still as beautiful as ever. The geyser erupts about 20 times a day and can spout water anywhere between 130 and 190 feet in the air, according to Yellowstonepark.com. The place to experience steaming vents and shooting columns of water, Yellowstone is home to about half of the world’s geysers, making it the largest concentration of geysers on earth. Old Faithful (Photo by Flickr user Adrian Valenzuela)

Writer’s Tip: Before going on this trip, dig through your closet for your Teva sandals, waterproof hiking boots and an umbrella, as you’re going to need them. My comment: I’d don Gore-Tex or other rain gear rather than carry an umbrella. I want my hands free for photography.

Tunnel of Love (Kleven, Ukraine)

Tunnel of Love

A rarely used railway track in the small Ukrainian town of Kleven is slowly garnering attention as photographs surface of the phenomenon taking place. In an area of dense trees, a train has carved out a tunnel just big enough for it to chug through. Otherwise, the arching area is completely overgrown by greenery and leaves — creating what’s now known as the Tunnel of Love. According to the International Business Times, the area has become particularly popular with the young crowd, and lovers holding hands walk through the tunnel in spring. (Photo by Panoramia.com user Serhei under Creative Commons license)

Tip: Not yet tagged a tourist attraction, the Tunnel of Love is located 217 miles from western Kiev, the country’s capital city, noted by the International Business Times. When preparing for the trip, consider investing in a money belt to keep your passport safe and an identity theft protection company like Life Lock to monitor your personal information while you’re away. My comment: If China is not on your travel schedule, you can have a similar experience, sans railroad tracks, driving though the Tunnel of Trees, two rows of eucalyptus trees arching over the road to Poipu on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai.

Gran Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni, Bolivia)

Gran Salar de Uyuni

According to Ruaverdebolivia.com, the Gran Salar de Uyuni was part of Lake Minchin, a giant prehistoric lake. Now it’s the world’s largest salt flat. Located in southwest Bolivia near the crest of the Andes, the area is roughly 25 times larger than the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. It’s estimated that Salar de Uyuni contains 10 billion tons of salt, though only 25,000 tons are extracted annually, revealed on the Ruta Verde website. (Photo by Flickr user Jürgen Schiller García / schillergarcia_

My comment: The startling white surface behind the cacti and other desert plants is the Gran Salar, the great salt flats of Uyuni.

Will High-Tech Border Fence Become a Tourist Attraction?

Other walls that kept people apart eventually draw tourists together

Walls are sometimes meant to keep people in (prisons, for example) and sometimes to keep them out (fortresses). The Great Wall of China to keep the Mongols out, Hadrian’s Wall to protect the Roman presence in Britain against raiders from the north, the Berlin Wall to keep the East Germans in and Israel’s walls to contain Palestinians are just a few examples over the centuries. 

I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China in both directions from Bandoling, an attraction for foreign tourists and visitors alike, because it is the most convenient segment to Beijing and the most developed as well.

The Great Wall of China, built in the 3rd century, B.C.

I’ve hiked along a section of Hadrian’s Wall west of Carlisle. Once a formidable barrier, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and north England’ s most popular tourist attraction.

Hadrian's Wall, begun in 120 A.D. and more than 70 miles long.

Nothing symbolized the Cold War more than the Berlin Wall, which divided the city that once was (and is now again) the capital of Germany.  Segments of the Wall have been relocated all over the world to memorialize the terrible tensions of the Cold War era and all the repression involved. The first time I went to Europe, I passed through Checkpoint Charlie separating the two halves of divided Berlin. Germany and Berlin have been reunified, and I’ve seen segements of the wall in Manhattan, Rapid City and elsewhere. I haven’t seen the one at Israel’s Ein Hod Artists’ Village, an sad and ironic place for it, since Israel is still building its dispiriting security wall.

Built in 1961 to divide East and West Berlin

Israel started building a formidable wall after the Second Intifada in 2003, and they haven’t stopped yet. An eight-foot wall cuts through some Palestinian towns and surrounds others, separates farmers from their field and their livestock, and makes Palestinians prisoners on their land. I passed through it in June going to and from the airport in Tel Aviv. It is not a tourist attraction but rather an impediment to Palestinian people and a provocation to them. Hopefully, a two-state solution will be hammered out of this bitter conflict and the wall (or small sections of it) will eventually become a curiosity and tourist attraction too.

The wall was begun in 2003 and is still under construction. When completed (or if completed) it will be 760 kilometers long (430 or so miles -- but correct my arithmetic if I'm wrong).

Another barrier, this one high-tech rather than brick and mortar, is/was a planned “virtual” border fence between the US and Mexico. This Bush administration brainchild, conceived in 2005 and was sold to Congress and the tax-paying public as chain of cameras, ground sensor and radar installations that were to detect “illegals” crossing the 2,000-mile border between the US and Mexico. Boeing has raked in a billion dollars, only about 53 miles of fence were ever constructed. Janet Napolitano is the  former governor of Arizona (you know, the state where Congresswomen, federal judges and 9-year-olds occasionally get shot), knows something about border problems and immigration issues. She is now the Secretary of Homeland Security and announced a few days ago that the project is dead. What took the Obama Administration so long to dump it? It cost $15 million a mile — money that could have gone elsehwere. Looking at previous attempts at fence-building, I wonder whether the bit of “virtual” fence will ever be a sightseeing attraction. You be the judge.

Installations like this were supposed to secure the 2,000-mile-long US-Mexico border. Only 53 miles have been built, and that's it. Have taxpayers gotten their billion bucks' worth?

 With the dream of a high-tech barrier stretching from one end of America’s southern border to the other – originally hailed by then-President George W. Bush as “the most technically advanced border security initiative” ever – officially canceled, I wonder what the next frontier will be to keep people out or in or have something to look at when it’s finished.

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In announcing that it would pull the plug on the troubled “virtual fence” project, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Friday it would instead pursue a region-by-region approach, with different parts of the US border protected in different ways as dictated by terrain and other area-specific conditions.

“This new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement.

Chinese Coal Ship Aground on Great Barrier Reef

Marine park and top diving destination at risk

If I ruled the world, China would stop mining coal. The cost is too great: frequent fatal mine accidents (the latest just a few days ago), filthy and unhealthy air over much of China from antiquated coal-fired plants and now the “Shen Neng 1,” a Chinese bulk-coal ship that strayed from designated shipping lanes on Saturday and slammed into Australia’s Great Barrier reef at full speed and ran aground on this world wonder.

The reef is a fanastic 1,800-mile barrier reef 60-odd miles off Australia’s northeast coast that is arguably the world’s finest scuba destinations. Great Keppel Island, where the ship ran aground, is a dive destination that boasts “pristine waters. I checked dive blogs and specific Great Keppel Island dive operators and resorts, and astonishingly, none mentioned this incident or its possible effects.

There has not yet been a really major spill of the ship’s 950 tons of oil, but oil patches several miles from the wreck have been spotted from the air. Chemical dispersants were sprayed on the oil on Sunday  The ship, which is about 800 feet long and carried about 65,000 tons of coal, will have to be towed into port.

The BBC reported: “Queensland officials say the ‘Shen Neng 1’ is badly damaged and the salvage operation could take weeks. Fears remain that it could break up, spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil.
Environmentalists are furious about the grounding on Douglas Shoals, well outside the authorised shipping channel. The Chinese-registered ship is balanced precariously off the east coast of Great Keppel Island.
A tug boat is at the scene to help prevent it from keeling over and to assist with any attempt at refloating the stricken vessel. Its Chinese crew have remained on board.” According to a statement in a video that is part of the BBC report, ships are permitted to sail the calmer waters between the Mainland and Queensland without a pilot. Blomberg more recently reported that a second tug is on its way.

Deja Vue All Over Again

On March 11, 2009, the Hong Kong-flagged container ship “Pacific Adventurer” was responsible for a large oil spill that Moreton Island and Sunshine Coast beaches, north of Brisbane The  ship lost 31 containers of ammonium nitrate that loose in Cyclose Hamish’s rough seas. Some of the containers pierced the ship’s hull, releasing some 270 tons of oil into the ocean. The captain was charged with violating marine-pollution laws but permitted to leave Australia.

In August 2009, the Australian and Queensland Governments and its owner, Swire Shipping, reached an  agreement, under which the transport company was to pay $25 million in damages. This far exceeds Swire’s legal obligation of $17.5 million for compensation. The overage was to go to a trust specially established to help improve marine protection and maritime safety. The “Shen Neng 1” accident might put it to use. Who knows what will happen to the captain — and whether China’s Cosco Group will pay a potential $921,500 fine — far too little, IMHO.

Ironically, Cosco’s website boasts that it is committed to the UN’s Global Compact, whose cornerstones are “aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.” Environment. Slamming a ship into a marine park is a serious misalignment.

The Great Barrier Reef is a world wonder, home to some 400 coral species (the most in the world), 1,500 species of tropical fish, 4,000 types of mollusks, 200 types of birds, 20 types of reptiles. It is also the habitat for a number of threatened species such as the dugong (“sea cow”) and large green turtle. Additionally, it is an important breeding area for humpback whales that migrate from Antarctica.

I have a special affection for the Great Barrier Reef. After snorkeling off Lady Musgrave Island, one of thousands of little land outcroppings, back in 1987, I decided to get my scuba certification, because I wanted to participate in underwater life, not simply to float on top as spectator. I’m now a certified diver but never managed to return to Australia. Since my visit, we’ve become aware that this reef, like all others on the planet, is under chronic assault from climate change, but a ship running aground and spilling oil or other harmless substances is acute trauma.