CHAPTER 4 – CHINA “55 DAYS IN PEKING” WELL 3 ANYWAY!
AN OLD CHINESE PROVERB
(Discovered on a wall in Hongkong on a 1994 visit)
The bright sun is leaning against the mountains.
The yellow river is joining the main meander
To satisfy the desire to see further beyond……
Another step must be taken.
Enter your ‘foreign correspondent’, to report back on a highly spirited Educational visit of Hong Kong and China back in June, 1994. This was led by a very endearing, capable young man Ron Berry of Viva Holidays.
It was a nice congenial sized group of eleven, which ended up like one big happy family which probably all came about from the immortal arriving words of a Hong Kong Airport official of “Please be considerate…….”
Departure arrangements did not go smoothly. Had I made it to the International terminal ten minutes earlier, I would have met up with the rest of the group at the pre-determined meeting spot. But as fate would have it, that particular morning saw a traffic snarl of unprecedented chaos at Mascot airport. The flight down from Cowra on Country Connections was on time, and a beautiful one witnessing a magnificent blood red sun rising in fluffy grey and tangerine clouds, giving a promise of a new dawning to a happening of a lifetime.
As always, this girl does two or three things at once, and instead of going straight to the International terminal, stopped over at Qantas Club to have breakfast and make some phone calls. Totally oblivious to the traffic banked up down below, a nonchalant traveller, tried to get the Qantas shuttle with 80 minutes to spare, dwindling down to 60 minutes with traffic at a stand still. Anyway I eventually made it to the Qantas queue for the flight to Hong Kong along with hundreds of pushy Asians heading home with heaps of excess baggage.
There were only a handful of Europeans in the queue, not looking remotely like the wanted group. In desperation I called out Ron to any male Caucasian walking past, because he had my airline ticket! Finally the right guy came along, so we were destined to go to China the promised land, after all.
It so happened that Bob Hawke (pre-Blanche I think) was on the same flight to Hong Kong, so not being of a shy nature at all I said Hi, I’m Sam’s mum, remember Sam – yes thank God he did as she worked for him in one of her previous positions!
Hongkong was hot on arrival which was a pleasant change to the frosty morning I had left behind. Now you never know who you are going to “shack up” with on an Educational. I must say I have been pretty lucky over the years, even though the people I have shared with may not concur because I have seen some drawing straws to not have the privilege, owing to my hyper-activity and nocturnal habits. However in this case, I was to meet a companion, friend and kindred spirit for life in my friend Marie, who we discovered almost immediately when we could not decide which bed the other wanted, that not only were we both Librans but both Year of the Snake so a winning quinella combination.
After checking into our hotel for two nights in Hong Kong the Marco Polo, we had a quick change and down to the foyer, because there was not one minute to be wasted. Straight down to the MTR Tsim Sha Tsui Station to head for Mong Kok and the Temple Street Markets. Now I have a reputation second to none for shopping, so there was a matter of expediency here. Tripping past the ever present beggars on the steps, we entered what must be one of the cleanest underground rail systems anywhere in the world. We then got a little carried away and purchased a HKD70.00 ticket to travel a HKD8.00 sector, however these tickets have longevity, so when one returns to Hong Kong one will use this ticket again if one could only find it.
Down to the Ladies Markets, perspiration dripping from the fore-heads of these avid shoppers as they mingled amongst the leather bags, clothing, bare-chested shirtless merchants who seemed more intent on what they were eating than making a sale. However a little later, laden with parcels, we headed for Nathan Road via the underground, up past The Peninsular Hotel where we could have stopped for ‘high tea’ with Noel Coward, had we been earlier, like by 40 years. Not so elegant our dining destination, but the newly opened Planet Hollywood, where of course the very essence of Eastern cuisine was to be had on our first night, hamburger the size of which could only be totally demolished by someone with a boarding school up-bringing. Anyway it was fun, looking around at all the second hand Hollywood paraphernalia, Sharon Stone’s ice pick, Sly’s suspended body, and wow even a car slung way up in the ceiling. The intrepid foursome headed back to the Marco Polo for a quiet drink. That’s what I like about using a credit card, when you get home, and month’s later and your credit card bills come in, you rediscover that at 0013 you had a Margarita, and then at 0035 you had a strawberry daiquiri, what next!
An early morning call got the group going to a hosted breakfast where one eats very well and makes polite conversation with someone they have never met before and not likely to meet again. The usual hotel inspections then take place which I personally, really like doing, as they are very helpful for deciding where clients should or should not stay on an itinerary. Then off on our scheduled Hong Kong Island Tour. Deborah our delightful local guide whisked us under the ‘no excuse tunnel’ aptly named from the days before it existed, to when the ferries were prevented from carrying businessmen back home to Kowloon side in typhoon season from the notorious “Suzie Wong” Wanchai area. Nowadays, “no excuse” because of tunnel.
We went out past Happy Valley and the racecourse, a very popular venue for the gambling mad Chinese populace. A very unique racetrack set in amongst “Lego” city. Up past Lover’s Rock half way up a hill behind Wanchai, holding magical properties that ensure love and marriage. On to Aberdeen and the famous floating Jumbo Seafood Restaurant, and home to the Sampan people who dwell in this almost condemnable deprivation. Tourists flock here just to witness the colour, not to mention bouquet of the place, it really is unique. Each boat dwelling is reminiscent of the cubby houses one had as kids, with makeshift boxes for furniture, and that ever present vase of plastic flowers. The women on board, all appear to be busy doing mundane tasks, making fishing nets, scrubbing clothes in tubs that look dirtier than the clothes.
On up to see romantic Repulse Bay, which has an aura of ‘another place another time’. The beach there itself, is beckoning to come on down and spend a pleasant afternoon watching the junks drift out into the South China Sea. Past the gondola cars and long escalators to Ocean Park and Ocean World to Stanley Markets where we were allowed to have 45 minutes of crazed shopping. Stanley market is one of the best places in Hong Kong to pick up that bargain or two. Reeboks, T-shirts, cashmere sweaters, souvenirs etc. and unfortunately because of the shopping frenzy, the two beautiful beaches there tend to get over-looked.
We then made it to Victoria Peak, and as hot and humid as it was below, when we reached the peak, it was shrouded with swirling mist reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. Fortunately these just shifted briefly to allow us a peak at the fabulous view of Hong Kong harbour and city below. The tram trip down is an experience.
On a previous visit to Hong Kong I did the “Land Between Tour”, now I guess they will have to rename that to the “Land Regained Tour” now that Hong Kong has been handed back to the Chinese government. Macau also holds pleasant memories of a ferry crossing the South China Sea to visit this Portuguese colony. It is very architecturally different, with ornate buildings, and statues, gambling casinos like the one in the Lisboa Hotel, narrow streets, and an unusual suspension bridge of very aesthetic lines.
Meanwhile back in downtown Kowloon, the nightlife was just awaiting our little gang to hit it. So after a few drinks at the Tartan Bar at the Omni we headed for our first sitting of Chines/Cantonese cuisine at the Jade Garden Restaurant located near the Star Ferry Terminal. Where we later caught a ferry on what has to be the most scenic water crossing at night, anywhere in the world. We were headed for a memorable night at the original Joe Bananas Disco Bar, with its most congenial atmosphere.
Sipping margaritas in dark nooks where heavy timbered louvred windows separate the sweating revellers from the rain soaked streets. Getting a taxi to take us back to Kowloon, was not so easy at 3.00am, when you can’t remember which hotel you are staying at!
This was our early night too, because we were all excited about the promise of tomorrow fulfilling a life-long dream to travel to Beijing.
Later that morning, seeing those fabulous three letters, PEK on the luggage told us we were off. On the South China Air flight we were delivered warm beer and cool looks from behind those starchy white aprons. I always get a buzz out of having a window seat and looking down on a country you have never flown to before. China did not disappoint, with below a brown snaking Yangtze river meandering through towns and villages large and small, over Shanghai, and over a land and its people that had existed through wars, famine, floods, droughts etc. for centuries, all below.
Then we were approaching Beijing. Visibility through polluted air was limited, however the flat land with low rise buildings and tall thin typically Chinese trees only foliage at the tops, told us we were nearing Beijing.
The airport itself, was amazingly modern and very clean as is most of Beijing because there are noticeably no dogs on the street. Have they all been eaten?
We were met by our delightful local guide Mr. Li who became very special to us. His obvious vast knowledge of China, its history and culture was riveting and very eloquently delivered descriptions in perfect English with a slight American accent gained from his wife having spent a year in the USA were something to remember. He became quite emotional when discussing past events at Tiananmen Square. He told us he had a bit part in the movie ‘The Last Emperor’ which I have yet to find him in.
We learnt heaps on the way to the Hotel, the Great Wall Sheraton, which was to be our home for the next three days. It seems to take at least an hour to get anywhere in Beijing as it is so spread out. So this particular hour was on the new concrete highway built to woo the Olympic games there in 2000 which we now know was in 2008. On arrival at the Great Wall, I still cannot explain the sense of deja vu seeing the side entrance with red carpeted steps and two side escalators – must have been in a movie once.
We could not wait to visit Tiananmen Square. So after a quick change, we were off with Mr. Li to visit a dimension quite unreal to us westerners. We stood quietly in awe in that square, belittled by the immenseness of it all, and not even beginning to be able to imagine the turmoil caused there by the student uprising and ensuing massacre. The stage where Chinese power ruled the masses. One hopes that this sort of up-rising will never again occur in Chinese history, because it had such a profound affect on the people generally, and one can still sense the emotional bruising it had on the young generation in particular, not having been pre-conditioned by propaganda like their forebears.
The buildings surrounding Tiananmen Square had a military austerity about them. The Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) the main gate of the Imperial City was built in 1417 and rebuilt in 1651, and has seen imperial edicts through history and in 1949 the announcement of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Tse Tung.
When in Peking, you just have to have Peking Duck, so we ducked into North Sea Park to a traditional restaurant in a typical garden setting with weeping willows along a lake with that little bridge, which could have been on the willow patterned plates we all know and love so well. A Peking Opera singer and Chinese Ensemble greeted us, and added to the aura. This was Saturday night fever with a difference. The Chinese cuisine was very tasteful, plentiful and memorable, especially the mouthful of dried Chile I mistook for red cabbage. The local beer was excellent, light and in long-necked bottles, also their local wine aptly named ‘Dynasty’ was surprisingly palatable. Every meal saw the mandatory glass of sweet muscat at the finale, presumable to wash down the cold soup which comes last, not first.
The next day, Sunday, great excitement, because this was the day we were to see the Great Wall for the first time in our entire lives. I was awake at 5.00 am in anticipation of this mammoth event. The view from our eleventh floor, was unforgettable, as even at that time of day, down below was a “sea of bikes” and vehicles making their way six lanes wide, in the already polluted atmosphere. A bath, CNN news then off to the Great Wall. Marie slept through all of this commotion!
The coach took an hour to make its way north to a beautiful green mountainous area, through the flat monotony of Beijing. Our first stop on the way was to the Ming Tombs. You begin to feel the grandeur of the place, when you start walking up the ‘Sacred Way’, the road leading to the Emperor’s tombs guarded on both sides by animal statues of a mythical nature, muted there since 1435.
Quite a long time to be muted! You then pass through several wooden carved gates, with ornately carved ceilings with painted columns in vivid colours of cobalt blues and burnt ochres, before reaching the Hall of Eminent Favours built in 1427. This hall displays the most magnificent un-earthed collection of gold, and jade and every element imaginable. These all just sitting behind ordinary glass and not appearing to be over zealously guarded considering the wealth there, both monetary and historical. Quite amazing.
You then walk through to the Ming Lou Pavilion that looks like it has stood there forever and a day. You can just imagine the sheer majesty of this area in the winter time when covered with snow.
We lunched at a restaurant overlooking a reservoir before going on to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. It gives you quite a start, when you first catch a glimpse of this mighty structure, and just like excited kids, we couldn’t wait to get out of the coach to start climbing. First though there was the choice to either climb the easy section or the more challenging South Four Fortress, and of course you only get one shot at this, so go for broke the hard section.
This has to be one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have ever done to climb this. The Great Wall is even more imposing than you imagine from photographs and it is not easy to scale up as each step is a different height and width and shape to fool the marauders and their horses (and sightseers). The sheer engineering skill, and the fact that it has stood for over 2,000 years and is the only man-made structure visible by astronauts from outer space, and the daunting length of it, 5,000 kilometres, all makes it so remarkable, and you feel you are climbing a legend.
Of course there are all the post-card and T-shirt and souvenir shops and sellers to fight your way past to reach the top. As per normal wherever there is a tourist attraction anywhere in the world.
It took two hours to drive back to Beijing, past the Trans Mongolian Railway line, partaking in some China tea on the way. Then that night to try out “Passion” the Great Wall Sheraton’s night club. You could really write a book, and really that is where the seed was planted by my friend Marie, on just sitting and watching the scene unfolding before us. There the locals cavorted the night away to western tunes, it was the timeless courtship ritual, conquerors and concubines. It even appeared Patrick Swayze was there doing his own thing. So, we danced the night away.
Just a little hungover next morning, but not enough to spoil the excitement of visiting the Forbidden city. Once again until you pass through the Meridien Gate and over the moat to this once, totally inaccessible place to we mere mortals. It is only then, that you realize you have entered a formidable place.
The layout of the Forbidden City is orderly and symmetrical, and covers an area of 720,000 square metres, and is surrounded by a wall 10 metres high. The names of the pavilions are so poetic and aesthetic like Hall of Celestial Purity, Hall of Preserved Harmony, and Supreme Harmony of Terrestrial Tranquillity. Even the long passageways in the Inner Courts had an air of preserved tranquillity and serenity as you walked by, feeling a little like invaders of a lost era.
We saw the East Chamber of Warmth in the Hall of Mental Cultivation, where the Empress Dowager Cixi ruled the country from behind the curtain, whilst the child Emperor sat on the throne as depicted in the movie ‘The Last Emperor’.
The Imperial Gardens were very beautiful, once again symmetrically perfect, and a lovely story at the Hill of Accumulated Elegance made of limestone water-weathered rock of how the Emperor and Empress would view the rising moon from this point, eating moon rock cookies. A great afternoon was still in store for us, to visit the Imperial Summer Palace on Kunming Lake, built to compliment the Forbidden City as a summer respite from the intense heat of Beijing.
This is the most amazing place, overlooked by Prospect Hill. There sits the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Spring Seasons on the edge of the man made Central Sea, South Sea and North Sea. In the searing summer heat this was a perfect haven. John actually took photos of this Lake frozen over in November, with people ice-skating on it, which was a total contrast. It was a great privilege to walk over the Seventeen Arch Bridge, linking all the lakes, and to pass along the north bank through the Long Corridor decorated with hundreds of beautiful paintings, feeling like a processional regal personage. There was a very presence walking through this corridor.
The marble ship stands permanently at anchor at the end of the lake, looking like a pristine stony galleon. You reluctantly moved over the Jade Belt Bridge, leaving this beautiful Imperial Palace and its gardens behind, being that much the better for the visit.
That evening we were treated as guests at the Tenth Anniversary Dinner of the opening of the Great Wall Sheraton. This was definitely the place to be, as clearly many of Beijing’s dignitaries were invited to the Grand Ballroom which seated 500. The entertainment was of a local nature, but memorable was the youth choir which sang to the audience.
Our last morning in Beijing, still held a few surprises with a visit through Heaven’s Door to the Temple Of Heaven built in 1420 as a high alter to good harvests in spring and rain in summer and to offer sacrifices to heaven in winter. A round heaven and square earth are depicted, A concept to Chinese thinking. It was completely wooden in structure, supported by four pillars in the centre representing the four seasons, twelve pillars in outer circle, of course the twelve months of the year, and another twelve for two hour periods symbolising day and night. Here again was another long, beautiful corridor.
There is a wonderful family atmosphere in these parks and gardens and public areas. Here you see people practising Tai Chi, old men playing checkers, and couples waltzing to Viennese waltz records, as well as children playing various simple games. People take their pet caged birds for walks.
A last minute walk through ‘silk alley’ to pick up those blouses, scarves and ties that are so cheap and plentiful there before going back to the airport for departure back to Hong Kong and on to home.
China has to be one of the most magic and memorable of destinations.
John went there on a later trip with Qantas Holidays
We were lucky to be chosen by Qantas Canberra and Qantas Holidays to go to Hongkong as a thankyou for business. Best part was flying business class on the flying kangaroo.
We were treated to all the regular sightseeing venues including Aberdeen cruise to see Jumbo restaurant, Victoria Peak tramway, shopping at Stanley markets, visit to Repulse Bay. Ferry to Macau for the day, and lots of fine dining.
This, like a lot of our trips was a very rushed one following 14 states in 14 days in the USA which we did for an air fare of $399 with North West on their inaugural flights to/from Australia. We travelled on this cheap fare from Sydney to LAX on NW then from New York over the north polar (the polar route) to Osaka in Japan (lucky enough to get an upgrade to business class this sector which was a plus because this was a luxury not often afforded us)
We spent a whole 5 days in Japan and did one heck of a lot in that time. Osaka is very commercial, so on arrival Kensai airport we did not stay here but transferred straight through to Kyoto.
Next day we headed for Nara to visit the famous Deer Park and Todaiji Temple, the Daibutsuden where the Great Buddha sits
and looks down upon all of the visitors. This is purported to be the biggest wooden structure in the world. We then visited the Kiyomuzu temple and the main hall here is a national treasure.
Then we caught the fastest train in the world ” the bullet train” to Tokyo, and were lucky enough on the way to see snow-capped Mt. Fuji, in all its glory which a lot of the time does not oblige the tourist visitor by showing itself but quite often hides in the clouds.
We stayed right in the centre of hustling, bustling Tokyo taking in the Ginza with wall to wall people. I was told we had to go to Asakusa markets with its Sensoji Temple.
We visited the Imperial Palace, and of course went to the top of Tokyo Tower for a view over Tokyo which is very flat, a bit like Paris in that respect although the buildings different.
GROUP TOUR TO RAFFLES CUP SINGAPORE 2000
We took a small group to Singapore in 2000 main reason to go to the Raffles Cup Horse Races, which was quite something because horse racing is really up-market in Singapore and Hong Kong, with very salubrious facilities watching races from behind glass in comfortable restaurant facilities. Hole in the wall betting facilities everywhere on TAB so no queuing up, no crowds.
We stayed at the York Hotel near Orchard Avenue, nice and central which was very comfortable. After check in we started to visit all of the main sights of Singapore starting with a city tour past the Merlion statue famous here half lion, half fish mythical creature.
Past the Singapore cricket club, Marina, Clark Quay, a stroll around Little India with its delightful spicy colours and smells. Down Orchard Road with its rows of fashionable stores, and hotels inter-mingled.
We went out to Changi prison to see the War museum there that was quite interesting, showing where the Australian prisoners of war were held. We even found a book on Cowra and the Cowra Breakout among the museum paraphernalia. Changi was originally built by the British in 1936 to house civilian prisoners. But in 1942 it was taken over by the Japanese housing incredibly 50,000 allied mainly British and Australian prisoners. About 850 POW’s died during internment here under the Japanese occupation of Singapore.
In the afternoon we went to famous colonial Raffles Hotel named after Sir Stamford Raffles, you feel just grand walking along the columned verandas surrounded by lovely gardens, it has the feel of an elegant era past, of well-dressed guests just taking time to ingest the finer things of life. On up to the Raffles bar which is one of the top bars in the world, to sip a Singapore Sling whilst peeling peanuts and throwing the shells on the floor (just a sweet taste of decadence) the Slings aren’t cheap, so sipping is recommended but well worthwhile the visit.
Next day in the morning we went to the extremely beautiful Botanical gardens with its Orchid House, just beautiful and despite the hot weather always in Singapore, it is always cool in there with fine sprinklers everywhere. Then on to the Singapore Zoo, I think the best in the world. Cleanest indisputably anyway, there is not even a whiff of odour here, and you could eat your snacks off the pavement. There is a cute train to take you right around the zoo without a lot of walking which is great. Main attraction is to feed the Orang-u-tang. Visiting the zoo of an evening is recommended when it is cooler.
We went for dinner at Clarke Quay the riverside festival village, brightly lit with hundreds of eateries all vying for your patronage. The main target is to find one that sells a great Singapore Chilli Crab which is to die for. You do get in a bit of a mess tackling it I might add, but they do give you a plastic rain coat and plastic gloves to alleviate the mess. Then a rickshaw ride back to your hotel is a fitting way to finish the evening.
Following day we caught the gondola cars travelling over the bay and docked cruise ships to Sentosa Island, here at Fort Siloso also is another very good museum of the World War II years in Singapore, housing much memorabilia of this and the British colonial days.
Sentosa island has lots of hotels, resorts and beaches. At night we saw the Musical Fountains Laser light show which was fabulous. Evidently it has now been replaced by “Songs of the Sea” water fountain and music show.
VENTURE HOLIDAYS EDUCATIONAL TO SINGAPORE & PENANG 1993
Once again Venture Holidays were the wholesale leaders in providing on-hand knowledge to fledgling travel agents who had not travelled to these countries before. And once again our fearless leader was “Wee Andy” McGinlay. Along with him on this trip apart from myself was Jacqui Lenaghan (my room-mate and long-time friend from Harvey World Orange) Nerida Hills, Tracey Dow, Trudi Jones, Peter Schramko, Isla Howell, Andrew Cassimatis, Jeanette Costa, Pat Healey, Kathy Lewis, Kelly Tate, Maria Miller.
We flew Singapore airlines via Singapore through to Penang staying at the very nice Park Royal which had a huge swimming pool with swim up bar. Penang is a surprisingly nice beach holiday resort area, very clean and nice, not at all busy. And no shopping. I say surprising as I don’t think I ever had anyone come into the office and specifically ask for a holiday to Penang.
The long sweeping beach we stayed on Batu Firringhi has nice white sand, warm clear water, no surf, so very safe. We inspected lots of hotels of course, but that is ‘par for the course’ and quite frankly I quite enjoyed them as did give you a notion of where to take people or suggest for people to stay. All part of the professionalism of a respectable company.
We returned to Singapore for two nights at the lovely Shangri-la, and more hotel inspections of course, one I particularly liked was the Marina Mandarin.
VENTURE THAILAND & KOH SAMUI