Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

47 Beijing Airport - End of Trip -

Beijing, Nautica Cruise Ship, Africa……… Good Bye!
We are at the airport, leaving China, ending our Africa, Cruise, China trip for 2014/15. We have been on the road for 104 days. I had new experiences that will take me some time to absorb. We mostly only saw large towns, cities, coastal harbors. We had guided tours, almost all of the time; the entire time we were typical tourists.
 While I wrote what I felt at the time, I already know that a lot of it is just a surface report. One can simply not look at one place briefly and offer an opinion. It was fun though. I’ll keep these blogs as a memory; I posted them so they do not get lost. I trust that this internet blog will be around as long as I am alive, and if someone else reads this, well, enjoy my stories.
To recap the whole trip in just a few words seems impossible. I led a ‘spoiled’, rich man’s life for the last few months. I know it. It kind of bothered me to see others try so hard to make a daily life for themselves while I had the luxury to idle away time and money. But then all this might be just in my head, reality is different for all of us. I seem to forget the 14 to 16 hours working days I put in for nearly 30 years. The no weekends, no sleep days.
The people I met in Africa were very nice people. Most of the men and women I met spoke 2, 3 or more languages. Not European languages of course, but African Dialects those are very different from each other, as different as French is from German. It takes smarts to be able to do that. Most folks I met worked hard; wanted to make a better life for themselves, were smart.
Africa was the most difficult place to make a decent living. There is simply too much corruption on this continent, it is said. Everybody, even a lonely security guard in Cape Town, asks for ‘favors’. I remember one instance where I asked a man for direction and he walked with me for 2 city blocks but did not really show me the spot I asked for. Never-the-less, he wanted to be paid for his ‘kindness’.  He was upset that I did not pay him for what I took as a nice guy gesture.
There is nothing free in Africa, it seems. On the other hand, people worked hard, very hard indeed. Not so much with their brains but physically, for sure. The vendors in Cape Town who set up their stands on Green Market Square and work there every day come to mind. They do not have any money to speak of, only selling items that are available everywhere and not really needed by anyone. All the vendors seemed to be selling the same articles. How about innovation folks; something new, please?  I found this to be the same everywhere on my trip though; to walk around selling postcards or toys?  Selling big books when everybody can look things up on the internet? Their reality of what customers want to buy is certainly different from mine.  
I saw people selling wooden carvings that they blackened with shoe shine paste to look like Ebony Wood. I saw hand painted, simple postcards priced at U.S. $ 5.—apiece. Way too expensive. Even in the U.S. nobody would buy them at those prices. Frustrating! Carol told me to stop worrying about it. We are here as visitors only, we are not here to change the people or the country. The World has tried to help Africa for the last 500 years, Africa still needs help. But how to you help Africa?  Whatever the world tried so far does not seem to be working.
Indo China, what little I saw, was all about making money. Making money seems to be their hobby.  Every family, it seems, has a business, or knows someone who has a business that might give them a kickback if you buy something through their recommendations. Family is a big part of their culture. Naturally we were the outsiders and the objects of their pursuit for business. I obliged to a point. Looking around me while being in their streets, I saw many things I do not understand, like having a street with one shoe store next to the other, all bunched up. I called it a Shoe Street. There were Electronic Streets, Food Streets, etc. We went to a Pearl Market Store, where3 stories of the building sold pearls. Not jade, not diamonds, gold or any other jewelry, no it was a Pearl Market. Carol was looking for jade earrings and had a hard time finding them. She finally did but it was a fluke, this was a pearl place and pearls were mostly what were offered. Talk about single-mindedness. My guess is there were 60 or more jewelry stores just selling pearls. Amazing?  To my mind, yes, it was amazing. Where is the individuality?
There is always competition but I do not understand the concept of multiple stores with the same thing in one building at all. Sure they offer different foods, different shoes, different sets of pearls, etc. in each area, but your competition can see all your merchandize, every second of the day. Where is the uniqueness of your product, your innovation? Where or what is your edge? The concept was a mystery to me.
 Indo China, the countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam especially are worth another visit. Their history shows that they have very different ideas from China and India, the 2 giant countries that squish them on both sides. I did not have enough time to see those countries in detail but it seems worth a trip. I would like to see the smaller to medium size cities, not the mega cities we visited, that are more or less a copy of western cities. I’d like to explore the different life styles, talk to them about how they look at the world. Many of these countries seem to be just waking up from a Cinderella sleep. For hundreds of years they were in the back of peoples’ minds, but today with the internet bringing countries together this area would be good to explore.
Japan was unique, in many ways. Japan has their way of life. Japan is not China, nor Korea and for sure not any country in Indochina. Some voices around me said Japan was too bland, not colorful enough. Well, their culture is not flashy, true, but sophisticated. I felt the people were happy, smiled easily and were smart. Many things were different in Japan. Yes they had some food streets too and their buildings were skyscrapers but the Department Stores for example, had Help stands, Help people who would try to steer you to the right floor. Everything was neat and clean, orderly. I liked Japan.
China?  Oh, China!  China is huge, crowded, busy and proud; too proud?   For sure China is too crowded.  I know this is controversial but this is my report, so I say it. Their one child policy is a disaster. The one child is being spoiled rotten; to the point where those babies are turned into ‘me first’ people. The babies know they are the king of the family and are therefore as demanding as any king. They are, since birth, made to believe that they are the center of the world; that they are very important people. Everyone around them caters to them. Only them. China lately is flexing her muscles, getting more demanding in adding lost real estate back to the mainland. I stepped very carefully when I was in China. I liked the people, most of them. But I was a bit nervous with the amount of police and military I saw around me. The media is controlled, the internet is censored and there are checkpoints in the subways and on the sidewalks. From what I experienced one is always reminded that this is a communistic country. Liberty? Freedom?  Those are rhetoric words and for sure are not part of China today.
 I found China dangerous. Not the individual people per say, but the regime, the set-up, the underlying atmosphere. Not as bad as I remember the former East Germany but close enough to give me the hebe geebies.

I had a good time travelling, I kept these blogs; I learned a lot. Let’s see what the next trips will bring.

Auf Wiedersehen, Tschuess. 

46 Beijing, China - Day 7 -

Forbidden City, Again……. 

From my previous visits to Beijing I knew that there is much more to see in the Forbidden City than what we saw a few days ago with our ‘guide’.
So I thought this huge Palace deserves another visit. We took the subway to just one block away from the main entrance. And again, like the last time, we had to go through a police barrier with hundreds of people in line to go through a metal detector, a backpack x-ray and a pat down. Everybody who was Chinese had to show their ID card, which was electronically scanned and I am sure filed in some computer bank. I had to just show my passport, was patted down and then moved along. The waiting time to go through this barricade was about 15 minutes. Did I tell you I do not like being stuck in huge crowds? To feel bodies in front, rear and each side just makes me cranky. I need space. I don’t like crowds of pushy people. I don’t like to be pushed.
To finally be through this checkpoint was a relief but left me a bit on edge. I noticed that a lot of cigarette lighters were confiscated. I saw a lot of people just throwing them in to a big pile, voluntarily. No clue why, I did not know you were not allowed to carry them. Were you? Anyhow, a new lighter cost only 17 cents U.S. so I guess it was not too expensive to leave one behind. Still it made no sense to me. We were not entering a building; the check point was on the sidewalk in front of the Forbidden City. Chinese logic, I suppose. Before you can enter the Forbidden City there is a maze of barricades. There are police and soldiers everywhere. It seems this is the way daily life is in Beijing. The people just accepted this as ‘normal’.
Carol and I entered the main gate to the Forbidden City, ready to buy a ticket but…. No ticket booth. I could still see the old spots in the floor where turnstiles used to be but now……nothing. Just walk in. We did and so did lots of Chinese. Benches and food trucks greeted us along the wide walk; with the Meridian Line in the middle of it. Remember, the center of the Universe line that only the Emperor was allowed to walk on? Now of course, everybody walks everywhere. Nothing seems to be forbidden within the walls of The City. We entered into a non-descript large plaza with a big building, a hall in front of us. Then walked around this building hall and entered another plaza, again non-descript. There was hardly a difference between the 1st and 2nd plazas. This walk went on to a 3rd plaza and yes, this one was a bit different because we could not go further. A barricade blocked us. We could not go further than that, I tried. Side gates were open so we went left and looked down the alley way to be faced by shops that sell souvenirs, tour tickets, etc. Carol and I looked at each other and agreed this was not for us, not what we expected inside the Forbidden City. We must be wrong somehow.
So we went back to the barricade and now moved to the right. Ah, yes, there is a line of people standing and waiting. Smallish, electric, open buses load passengers for 2 Renminbi (34 cents U.S.) per person and the whole affair is very efficient. The loading continues and we join the crowd. Ok, off we go and after about a 3 minute ride we are dropped off at a??  Where are we? There is a guard house and another entrance but the entrance is blocked off, too. Where do we go from here? We stand a bit perplexed. Carol wants to go back to the starting point; I want to follow the crowds. After some debate, we follow the crowd who after a few hundred yards, disperses into the traffic of a road that runs along a shopping street. We are out of the Forbidden City and back into Beijing’s Shopping Streets.
I know there is more to see of the Forbidden City but we were not able to logically get there. We walked through the front entrance, but somehow got lost. We followed the crowds and now we are back in the street. Amazing, we are not that stupid, but the results speak for themselves. We got lost in the huge complex of the Forbidden City (FC) and now what do we do? Give up? You don’t know Carol, she never gives up.
Back to the front of the FC we go, through the Barricade again and now we try the right side entrance, not the main entrance. Naturally a ‘guide’ approaches us but we like to see the FC by ourselves, thank you. So off we trudge through an area with few people. Paved Parks, long empty, tarred walks and few old? buildings greet us. There is one castle-like building behind a wall. We enter and find out from the signs that this is the Ancestral Hall. We see photographers taking pictures of wedding parties on the elaborate stairs. In a way it is idyllic within the walls of this Ancestral complex, were it not for the ‘stuff’ stored behind barricades on the side, around the corner from the main view.
Film crews have their commercial shots set up for some scene. There are makeup tables slightly hidden behind trees. A modern “Emperor” and his Concubine jumping in the air to catch a red bow was the scene being shot. It looked stupid, but the film crew took it seriously. We watched a commercial being filmed that used the background of this palace as a typical Chinese background prop. The Wedding photographer, too, eternalized the couple’s memories of their special day right here. We must have been in a ‘famous’ place, but it did not feel like it. It rather felt like a commercial story book set, set up for the promotion of the old China, but it did not seem real. I felt like I was in a movie set, not at an ancestral place where the old should be revered. There was no reverence, just commercialism. We left this place.
Our own FC excursion was a bust. We spent all afternoon looking for something special within the FC that is no longer there. Too many years have passed; too many people are stomping through the FC to give me an impression of how forbidden it used to be. Stories can be read, dummies can be shown in imperial robes but the true spirit of the FC is no longer alive. It died with the last Emperor. The new Chinese, atheists as they are, use this complex as a business center. The Chinese are selling images of their heritage, selling their past, selling anything to make a buck in the Forbidden City. It is a commercial tourist trap. We got trapped in it more than once; once with a guide and now trying to find a sense of imperial splendor ourselves. The Forbidden City is just a shell, a commercial advertising spot. And the entire world buys this.

Look at any page about China and you will see the Forbidden City as the main attraction of Beijing. Well, I did not find it attractive at all. I felt that I was being ‘sold’ a bunch of empty promises. I leaned something though; I learned to just find my own images of China, without the advertising promises of the Government of China promoting whatever they think people want to see. China is interesting in many ways, but nothing is as promised by slick photos shown in advertisements. 

45 Beijing, China Day 6 - Summer Palace -

Day 6 in Beijing
Trip to the Summer Palace.

The subway in Beijing is amazing. It works great and covers huge distances. We took it long distance this time to visit the ‘ancient’ Summer Palace, another Imperial show piece from years gone by. Well, almost ancient!

Everything within the gardens and palaces is rebuilt; fixed up or “new”. If there are ancient buildings I did not see them. The park is huge. When we arrived, we just followed the crowds.
It being a Sunday, the crowd was quite impressive. As soon as we entered the gate, crowds moved towards a hill filled with temple buildings and small to medium sized castles. The whole compound is set on the hill side with stairs, stairs, and stairs. I made it to the top but it was not worth it, on the top was a wall. I walked up the wrong side of the hill. I could not figure out a way to circumvent the wall.

So down the hill we went and took a winding pass through the woods that meanders around the hill. (That sounds romantic but it was way too busy with people everywhere to be romantic). We were not alone mind you. Families with baby carriages or toddlers in their hands were our companions. The path was filled with folks.

I noticed that Chinese talk loudly, especially while being on a cell phone. And with the one child policy each child is an Emperor or Empress to their parents. They are doting over their offspring as if this child will save their life in the future. It was a family outing for most, just walking in the park. Like always in China, there is a crowd. It is hard to get away from people. No matter where you go, there is somebody there. I don’t think the Chinese are even aware of it, but for a Westerner this is obvious but maybe not so consciously obvious. I found it disturbing, the people got on my nerves; their behavior, their pushiness, their spitting on the ground, and their loudness simply got to me. I think I have been in China too long already. I am not used to being in close contact with other bodies, with noise all the time.

The actual park you want me to talk about? It was a retreat for the royals for the hot summer months that can be very hot in Beijing. The Park and Palace were started in 1750 and destroyed many times; mostly by the 2 Anglo/French Opium wars. Even the restorations done by Empress Cixi of the Qing Dynasty in 1888, on which she spent the whole Navy Budget for the year (and ultimately lost to the Japanese because if it), were again destroyed by the 8 Powers of the Colonial forces in 1900.

The park has about 3000 structures, and a hand dug, huge lake on which the Empress watched ‘war’ displays arranged for her by the Navy, while she sat on her marble Steam Ship Replica on the shore line sipping tea. The whole 742 acre park was set up for the pleasures of Cixi, the notorious Empress who ruled from behind a screen and wielded the true powers of China. 
She was the last breath of true power in China. She was a capable, but mired in tradition, ruler. Here is an account of her life in a very condensed form: The Summer Palace was actually her Palace.
She was born on November 28th of 1835, surnamed Yehe Nala. 
In 1851, she was selected as a beauty into the Palace. Due to the favor of Emperor Xianfeng, she was honored as a high-ranked Imperial Concubine, with the title of Yipin.
In 1854, she was given a higher rank, with the title changed to Yi Guifei.
In 1856, she gave birth to Zaichun who later became Emperor Tongzhi.
In 1861, the Second Opium War broke out. After Emperor Xianfeng died in August, her son ascended the throne as Emperor Tongzhi, who honored his mother as 'Holy Mother Empress Dowager'. In November, along with Prince Gong (brother-in-law of Cixi), she launched a coup in which the eight chancellors were dismissed or killed. As a result, she became the real power by keeping court from behind a screen.
In 1862, she was given the title of Empress Dowager Cixi by Emperor Tongzhi (Actually, she gave the title to herself through Emperor Tongzhi's prescript).
In 1873, as Emperor Tongzhi had grown up, she appeared to turn the power over to him but she still held power behind the scenes.
In 1874, Emperor Tongzhi- (her son) - died. (Rumor has it the Empress had her hand in his death). She chose another grandson of Emperor Daoguang as the heir - Emperor Guangxu. Because she was the aunt of Emperor Guangxu, she could continue ruling from behind the screen.
In 1889, Emperor Guangxu married. She announced that she would relinquish her power and retire to live in the Summer Palace. However, all the court officials still listened to her, leaving Emperor Guangxu as a puppet Emperor.
In 1894, Japan launched the Sino-Japanese War while Cixi was busy preparing the celebration of her 60th birthday. What's worse, when the Chinese navy fought fiercely with the Japanese, she strongly insisted on appropriating the military fund to restore the Summer Palace, ignoring the advice of chancellors.
In 1895, the Qing Navy was defeated due to the compromise of Cixi. Taiwan Island ceded.
In 1898, she launched a coup against Emperor Guangxu's Wu Hsu Reform. After that, she executed the main reform party members and from then on she put Emperor Guangxu under house arrest.
In 1900, the Eight-Power Allied Forces captured capital Beijing. She took Emperor Guangxu with her and fled to Xian. In September, another humiliating treaty - Peace Treaty of1901 was signed.
On November 15th of 1908, the day after the death of Emperor Guangxu, Empress Dowager Cixi died in the afternoon.

Yes, she was the last flamboyant figure of China. Ruthless and opinionated, prejudiced and I bet lonely. Power was her goal in life, maybe a misguided life, who knows. The Summer Palace was her playground, where parties were held and formal dinners given for dignitaries from around the world. What we see today though, is just a replica of years gone by. The buildings had a strange taste in color and d├ęcor for a Westerner like me. I visited, but I would not want to live there, I can think of nicer places. The park is too big, also. I would not need that much space to be alone.

44 Beijing China Day 5 - Lama Temple

Beijing (Day 5)

Day 5 at the Lama Temple (Yonghe Temple).

Only 6 stops going North on the #2 subway line, then a few steps to the left for the entrance to Yonghe and you seem to enter a different country. Could this be Tibet? I could smell the incense and saw the haze from the burning sticks before we even entered the main gate. This Temple complex is an assortment of temple buildings.  The compound is 480 meters long with 5 main temples residing within and many other side buildings. Each of the 5 main temples is dedicated to a theme and they contain many different artworks. Rare Tibetan and Mongolian religious artifacts from this Temple were saved from the carnage of the Cultural Revolution by the intervention of Zhou Enlai. I liked this place but it is a heavily China-supported tourist spot. Despite all the tourists many people prayed here in a very devout way. The amount of incense burned, the smoke from those sticks permeated everything and so did the political undertone of China.

The name of each temple made me smile. I found them pleasant and yet strange.

The Hall of Heavenly Kings,
The Hall of Harmony and Peace,
The Hall of Everlasting Protection,
The Hall of the Wheel of the Law
The Hall of Ten Thousand Happiness’s 

A hall for Protection?  For Law?  In a Religious place?  Hmmmm! Am I being too sensitive?

To find an active Tibetan Buddhist temple of the Geluk (Yellow Hat) School of thought in downtown Beijing is surprising and also sobering; at least for me. The 1959 takeover of Tibet by China is still controversial in my mind. I did not like the takeover when it happened then and I don't like it still. With the might of China behind the takeover there is no arguing. But I don't have to like it.

Nor did the present Dalai Lama, the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Lord who looks down with compassion and hears all) like it very much. Tenzin Gyatso is the birth name of the present Dalai Lama. He was 6 years old when he was recognized as a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara.

I still believe China is wrong to take over a country that is peaceful and meant no harm to anyone. But then to make the Lamasery a tourist attraction also seems wrong. The Lama Temple in Beijing was re-opened in 1981 and is, since then, heavily advertised in Beijing as an ancient (1694) historic building, similar to the Temple of Heaven Park. I liked the Lama Temple (Yonghe Temple) but what I did not like is the hidden, underlying message China sends to the world that China is in charge over Tibet. Let me try to explain some details you might not be aware of.

We all know of the Dalai Lama, he is getting older now. All his life, it seems, he has been fighting the Chinese Government about the forceful taking of Tibet. Since the 1950’s he has been verbal about the wrong China did. The Dalai Lama is not a forceful man, just the opposite, he shows compassion, tries to understand. Of course he sees wrong, too. He is a Buddhist, a pacifist. He has strong religious beliefs. His religious belief is that he, Tenzin Gyatso (present day Dalai Lama # 14) is a reincarnation and that the present day Dalai Lama is a resurrection of a former Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. When today's Dalai Lama dies he will be replaced with another Dalai Lama, the 15th Dalai Lama). Religious oracles and visions are needed to find the next candidate for this position within the Tibetan religion. Those ceremonies have already been performed and a young 6 year old boy was found in Mongolia by the name of Gebhun Choekyi Nyima. The present day Dalai Lama approved of this choice. Talks have taken place with the mother of this boy for his training for the position of Dalai Lama after the present Dalai Lama dies. She agreed to this training of her son by the monks. All was set in the eyes of the Tibetan monks to have a successor.

Now the China I don’t like. China did not like the choice of the boy who was selected. They kidnapped him, took him to a secretive spot and are “re-training” him now. Nobody knows where he is but China admits they took him. Instead China wants another 6 year old boy, Gyancain Norbu, to be the next Dalai Lama. China wants to have the power to install the head of this religion. They base their decision on historical “Golden Urn” records from Imperial times.

I know this is not in the daily news but the above statements are the facts.

The confusion continues with the additional fact that the Panchen Lama never left Tibet and he took the viewpoint of the communistic regime in 1959.  There is a split of opinions between these 2 top religious men and both have a rather strong view of Tibet. The Panchen Lama is the #2 man after the Dalai Lama and he supports China. The Dalai Lama has been living in exile in India since 1959 and opposes China's ways.

So why am I taking sides?  I believe there should not be interference by any government to pick a Pope or a Caliph or a Dalai Lama. Politics and Religion should not mix. To interfere will just create problems down the road. Any government should have an understanding of the religious beliefs of the people and these beliefs should not be mocked or be belittled. The power of the government should not be used to suppress anybody's belief. As well, religious leaders should not dabble in politics.

What China is doing at the Yonghe temple in Beijing is mocking religion or at least looking at religion as no more than a tourist thing! China's government is proudly mocking the Imperial Periods of China. Oh, they are very proud of the old China but of course nothing is better than the present form of government. The old China is good business today, but that is all old China is good for. Even on Chinese TV the past is pictured with stereotypical images. It seems mocking to me. The same feeling of mockery towards any religious belief is shown at temples, too. I find it difficult to explain. An atheistic country will look at any temple only as a money making place or venue for propaganda to further their cause. I felt the Yonghe Temple in Beijing, in the eyes of the government, is only a money-making tourist attraction; whereas I looked at the same place as a Sanctum for the Tibetan religion. China and I do not see eye to eye. I hated their idea of turning a wonderful old temple into a tourist spot with stores inside that sell soda pop and plastic knickknacks.

Go and see the Temple for yourself. With what eyes do you see this place?

43 Beijing, China Day 4 - Forbidden City -

Day 4 in Beijing, Forbidden City

In The Forbidden City were 3000 wives, 50,000 young eunuchs and just one Man according to our guide. This is how the saying goes in China. Those were the tenants of the Forbidden City in the past, our stop on day four in Beijing. I like history as you can tell. It tells me ways to live I never thought of. It shows me people I would rather not meet in real life. I learn about ways of treating people that are deplorable. There are places that are immensely impressive in The Forbidden City, yet underlying the impressiveness is a lot of sadness. There is also grandeur, even beauty here, but at what price?

Tour guides delight in the foibles of the Emperors who lived here, of their peculiar ways. Emperors ruled by traditions, rituals, superstitions and personal beliefs. These mere men, these emperors, were selected “hybrids” of human-kind. Most emperors were totally out of touch with the common man’s way of living. Artificially refined, pampered and spoiled, most were afraid of being assassinated by their enemies on a daily, even hourly basis. Precautions were installed, of course, but mistrust was bred into their psyche.  Paranoia kept the emperors from living a normal life. They were busy with the affairs of state but relied heavily on their close advisers, experts or family. I wonder sometimes if they would rather have been a “normal” man, rather than this artificial, pampered person, protected and revered.

Living as an emperor was always dangerous; most of the time your own relatives would kill you. From the 400 plus emperors of China, 85 or so were murdered by family members. Infighting, wanting the position of Emperor, wanting the power, was derigeur. Behind most of the secret power struggles were the women of the court. The eldest son of a favourite wife would be the next emperor automatically. There were many rules and the inheritance rules seemed complicated. Yet the women knew them by heart. The struggle to be the favourite wife, the best concubine, the number one wife drove those women. History shows that even women could wield power and that made bidding for the throne even sweeter. The object of this power struggle was always the emperor. He had to be done away with, any way possible. What a life to be an emperor!

So what good are 3000 wives and many concubines if all they want to do is kill you? Even some of the eunuchs had visions of being in command. The Forbidden City was a viper’s nest.

But then how true are the stories I am being told? I could not verify the kill ratio of 85 kills to 400 emperors; I tried to google the answers but Google is blocked in China. I could not confirm the 3000 wives, either, nor the 50,000 young eunuchs. We had a tour guide while we walked some of the grounds of the Forbidden City. He was a smart, 52 year-old man, full of numbers and facts. But how do I verify what he told us? I read the newspaper here in Beijing, translated into English. To my mind the words are massaged, and propagandized. I find it hard to believe anything I hear and even see in China. I know for a fact that during the history of Beijing, part or all of The Forbidden City was burned. What we see today is a good replica, a modern antique. I am sure the Forbidden City, as a whole, looked very close to what is being shown. But it also lacks the true antique look of old buildings. Mixed in with the old-looking buildings are a modern Kindergarten and Concert Hall now. Pavarotti sang in this new Concert Hall and it looks like a gray stone wart on the face of the traditional looking, reddish painted, yellow tiled houses and pavilions. The modern look of the Concert Hall does not really fit the Old City. Can I blame the Chinese Government? Millions of people visit this place in a year. How could the Government truly keep this place genuine? How is it possible to display the delicate splendour of years gone by with so many people traipsing in and out? I think this “new” museum, The Forbidden City, brings in lots of money from world-wide tourism. The Forbidden City is a close approximation of what was. With one’s imagination one can inject more delicate splendour and refinement. The city is a Museum Shell, a focal point of China's diverse history which today, is filled with dishonest tour guides, rich Western tourists and millions of Chinese who like to look at what was once forbidden.

The expanse of The Forbidden City is huge; we walked near the outskirts and never even saw the center buildings. We climbed an artificial hill with a pagoda on top for a bird’s eye view over the Forbidden City complex. Our guide chose the route, we followed. Up and down stairs forever. Or so it seemed. We saw the ‘unusual’, the women's quarters. We were shown typical residences of the upper strata within the Forbidden City.

Like always in China, there was a layer cake of jobs and positions around the Emperor. Some jobs would be close to the man who ruled and those people slept in beds at night. Some just swept the floors or weeded the gardens and slept on the floor wherever they could. Naturally we were not shown the floor where those dirt pushers slept, but did see the nice residences the middle to upper layers had.

We were shown the buildings that held the Gold, Silver and Treasures of the Forbidden City, but they are all empty today, there is not even a nickel left to see. The “dig” from our guide was that the People of Taiwan stole most of it. And naturally I was told by our guide that Taiwan is China, not an independent Republic. And naturally I could not just nod my head and acknowledge his propaganda. I told him that Taiwan actually did a good thing then. They saved all those treasures from the Cultural Revolution that swept through China under Mao who destroyed immeasurably valuable and extremely rare objects and treasures that were irreplaceable. His mumbles to himself I could not respond to, he probably called me some names.

We had a weird guide. Very knowledgeable it seemed, but also very much a communist from the olden days. He guided us through back alleys, took us with local buses to hidden sections within the city, promised us ‘free’ tea etc. and lead us further and further afield. After some time I got rid of him, feigning fatigue and being too tired to continue. He left with 20. - U.S. in his fingers.

And we, because it was past lunch time, went for some food.
Carol and I were not too happy with this guide. He seemed only interested in himself. Sure he knew things, knew tons of numbers but were those numbers true? We might go back to the Forbidden City but this time without a guide.

42 Beijing, China. Day 3 - Temple of Heaven -

Beijing, China. (Day 3)

Day 3 in Beijing, Temple of Heaven

A bit south of our hotel on Tian Tan Don Men, is the tourist attraction, The Temple of Heaven. To many people it is just another temple and there were some bored faces when we visited. We took the subway #5 to get to this Park and when we stepped off the train a few Americans from Utah guided us to the entrance of the site. They had been in Beijing for months already and knew the exact way. At the entrance to the Temple, a young man 36 years old, offered to be our guide for about 2 hours and wanted 300 Renminbi for his services. He looked OK to me and we hired him to show us around but at the renegotiated rate of 150 Renminbi for 2 hours (U.S. $23.-). His name was Bob. He turned out to be a nice chap.

There are 3 main sections to the actual temple complex plus many smaller buildings that served as storage buildings in the past and various other facilities like changing rooms for the Emperor, etc.  Bob pointed out some of the buildings and guided us to the most important ones.
·         The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
·         The  Imperial Vault of Heaven with its circular Echo Wall and
·         The Circular Mound Alter with the Heart of Heaven in its center platform.

Bob’s English was good but his knowledge of ancient Chinese history was a bit limited. So I researched some of the information below.

I want to talk about Kublai Khan. He was the first non-Chinese Emperor, a Mongol, the grandson of Genghis Khan the conqueror.  Kublai took this Emperor “job” because his father did not want it. Kublai did not speak Chinese. He could not read or write Chinese. Yet he declared himself Emperor over all of China. How is that possible? Well, part of the answer lies in this Park, the ‘Temple of Heaven’ where I am now, or it lies in the belief system of the Chinese which this Park represents.

The beliefs of the Chinese are ancient and go back to the years before the Common Era (BC). An emperor is basically a unifier of all kingdoms, small or large. Each kingdom is ruled by a king and all the kings are ruled by the emperor. This emperor/king relationship is the same worldwide. The ability of an emperor to handle these subservient kings requires great skill and savvy. The emperor has to be a clever man to subjugate his kings. He can dominate the kings and their constituents through brute force but…

What also counts in ruling an empire is the gentler understanding of his subjects and the belief system of the county. That is what this Temple is all about. Kublai Khan had conquered the Kings, made them Vassals, gave them limited powers, gave them new titles like General or Minister, etc. but he also massaged their egos. Those Kings were powerful, smart men in their own right and the Emperor had to ‘rule’ them with an iron fist. It was important, however, to not make them lose face before their constituents. After securing the Kings, the next step for the Emperor was to have the rest of his subjects accept him as the ultimate ruler. Here is where it gets tricky. I am now trying to only look at Kublai with an imaginary Chinese mind in Kublai’s time.

A Mongol is not Chinese. His culture is different. He prays to a different god. He eats different food, lives by different laws, etc. People can accept a lot of these differences but it would be very difficult to change their religious beliefs or their traditions. So instead of fighting to change the people, Kublai seemingly adapted to their systems. He even used China’s ancient beliefs to help secure his position as Emperor in China.

China has a “Mandate of Heaven”, an ancient belief in how the world was created. The Mandate explains who is in charge of China and why, who can or should be in charge over China and how to behave and what to do for the betterment of China.

Back to thinking like a Chinese in Kublai’s time.

Now China has a ‘new’ Emperor, a Mongol. What will he be like? He showed that he is powerful; he showed that he can handle the strong Kings and by that alone he is entitled to be King of Kings or Emperor. This point is confirmed in our Mandate which we received from the Heavens and from our ancestors.

But what did the gods say? Did the gods give this new Emperor permission to rule over China? Oh, this is not a frivolous question. If this new Emperor, this Kublai Khan, can talk to the gods and bring us farmers a good harvest and enough food to eat and some wealth too, then yes he was sent to us by the gods. Then we can accept him.

And that is where Kublai Khan was very, very smart. He understood perfectly the psyche of the masses. Just like a true Chinese Emperor he performed the ancient Chinese rituals in every small detail right here in the park where the Temple of Heaven is now. Yes, the buildings we see today, as they are now, were not here then, but Beijing was where Kublai Khan became and ruled as Emperor.

According to Chinese belief, this “Temple of Heaven” is the most important spot in the Universe. This exact spot is the centre of the Universe. Kublai Khan and later dynasties only made the spot visually accurate. The Temple here was erected to show the world how the whole relationship between the gods and the son of the gods (the Emperor) functions. Whenever there was a need to contact the gods, the Emperor now had a very specific spot to consult them. He did this at least once a year at the winter solstice. More often he did it at least twice a year. It was always a very solemn ceremony. Only selected people could witness this display of heavenly closeness of the Emperor and the gods or could hear his spoken prayers for rain, for example.

Logically this spot makes China the centre of the world, the centre of everything. This is nothing to laugh at; slowdown in your thinking here. It is a powerful belief. All of China still believes in it today. The Ming dynasty, the next dynasty after the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, built a Temple where the son of the gods (the emperor) could contact the gods. China was sure and still believes that they are ruled by the “I Ching” and the “Heavenly Mandate”.

Based on “I Ching”, the emperor is the “son of the gods” and is the only person on earth who can actually communicate with the gods and ask the gods for favors. If an emperor predicts the wrong time to plant rice, if something goes wrong in the empire of China, if natural disasters cause damage, then the emperor has lost his image as the ‘son of the gods’ and they will send a more capable man to take his place.

In my example the chosen man of the gods is Kublai Khan, a Mongol. The Chinese might think:
“We understand that he is a bit different but the gods sent him. Look what he did to our Kings. He conquered them. He could only do this because he can talk to the gods, we saw him praying to the gods at the Temple of Heaven Park and see, the harvest is good, we have no disasters and everybody who works hard can make some money. He must be the right man, sent to us by the gods, never mind that he is a Mongol”.

Subconsciously a similar thought went through every Chinese mind in 1271, I am certain.

Is it difficult to understand? Is it too simplistic? Remember China was always a very agricultural county; Simple farming folks with lots of superstitions. As long as people can eat and make money, then all is well. Change that and you will have a revolt, an uprising, a civil war, upheaval or whatever you want to call it. Kublai Khan was accepted. He did some great things for “his” people.
·         He built new canals and fixed the old canal system that connected all the major rivers, making it easier to move merchandise, to make money for the merchants (and move his armies, too).
·         He built a Fleet of ships to trade with foreign lands and made lots of money.
·         He invited an exchange of ideas with the West. Marco Polo comes to mind. Kublai was the Emperor Marco dealt with. Kublai introduced paper money and a new payment system (Kublai could have stolen this idea from the Italian bankers, maybe even from Marco Polo himself).
·         He installed a Postal system in China.
·         He was the Emperor who sent the new Chinese Navy to conquer Japan in 1274 when a Typhoon wiped out the new Navy before it could land on Japan. Kublai tried to conquer Japan twice this way. Yes, he did this twice and twice a typhoon wiped out the Chinese Navy to the delight of Japan. Japan called these winds, these Typhoons “Divine Winds” or in Japanese, Kamikaze. Japan used this analogy during World War II when the Kamikaze pilots were like the Divine Winds, sent by their gods to save Japan.

A lot of new things happened to China between 1250 and 1350. The catalyst was Kublai Khan, the “Sage” of China as he was later called.

Kublai moved the Capital of China from Xian to Zhi Yuan in northern China. Zhi Yuan translates to “Capital of the Yuan Dynasty”, the early name of today's Beijing. Not only did that move of the capital change China, it also changed the thinking of the Mongol tribes because now Karakoram was no longer the Mongol capital. Remember, the Emperor ruled over both, Mongolia and China. The “Great Khan” title still referred to Kublai Khan, he did not lose this title. The new Northern Capital was called Dadu in Mongolian. Anyhow, my point here is that Beijing was established as the Capital by Kublai Khan.

I could go on and on and give you more and more details about the conflicts at the time of Kublai, the wars he fought and won; the destruction and takeover of the Southern Song, the expansion of the Yuan Empire, of the Mongol Empire, etc.  It would be a book.

Please remember one thing from this report.

China, in 2015, still believes it is the center of the Universe. China believes that all other countries are just “peons”, waiting to be ruled by China.

Kublai played along with this idea; he used it to his advantage. He fasted for 3 days, changed into special clothing to pray, and had no women around him while he was at the temple of Heaven. He observed the rituals of the Chinese, did as his Chinese allies suggested to him, learned from his advisers. He sublimated himself to the Chinese belief system and used this belief to advance himself. Kublai was one of the smartest Emperors China ever had but also a brutal conqueror. But I don't want to pontificate.

The Temple of Heaven was Kublai’s turning point. This is the spot we visited while in Beijing. This is the Center of the Universe. We even stood at the exact spot at the “Temple of Heaven” where everything starts or ends; a spot very similar to where Kublai stood; on the same spot where other Chinese emperors stood many times and prayed or “talked” to the gods. The spot is a round, slightly elevated stone in the center of the Altar of Heaven called “The Heart of Heaven”.


This was written with an enlightened heart.

41 Beijing, China Day 2 - The Great Wall -

Beijing, Day 2, the Great Wall

On day two we were picked up at 8.30 AM by Thomas, a steward for Delta Airlines who, between flights, makes money as a tour guide in Beijing. We met a Chinese couple on the cruise ship who, through a friend, connected us with Thomas. Our goal for the day was The Great Wall at Jinshanling, about a 2 ½ hours’ drive from Beijing. There are closer spots to visit The Great Wall but this part of The Wall came recommended by people we talked to. Thomas turned out to be a very nice man. In his personal car he drove us (us being Jean & Ross Copas and Carol and I) to see one of the wonders of the world. The feat to build this spectacular wall is mind-boggling. Not that the wall held back the enemies forever, but I am certain it deterred them over and over.

Just imagine how frustrating the Mongols felt being held back by this wall. They knew of course that immense riches lay behind the wall to the South of Mongolia. They knew that they could gain immeasurable power if they could only get past that wall. The Mongols tried over and over to gain access to China but the wall held them back many times until…… the Great Genghis Khan stepped into the picture in the year 1205 through 1207. He did not conquer China but he raided China's western part of the wall and drove deeper and deeper into the country until in the year 1279, his grandson Kublai Khan took over all of China as the new Chinese Emperor and founded the Yuan Dynasty.

This statement of the founding of the Yuan Empire is a very simplified version because the actual takeover took a lot of planning and destructive warfare by the Mongols. Just to give you a hint, in the battle to take over Xie, one of the kingdoms in China, the Mongols killed 15 million Chinese. They burned or totally destroyed everything in their way. Smashed everything, killed everyone. Once the Mongols came there was nothing left of the town. It was total decimation. Large towns were conquered by sieges. After a 6 month siege for example, the Mongols moved in and totally destroyed everything and everybody within the town. The impact of those battles can still be felt today. All written records were destroyed. All artifacts, statues, buildings and temples were totally eradicated. After a Mongolian invasion the area was flat, burning and heaped with the dead bodies.

The Mongols ruled during the Yuan Dynasty in a similar way. The first Emperors of the Yuan Dynasty could not Speak Chinese. Nor could they read or write it. Naturally they wrote and read in the Mongolian Script but the two languages and scripts are very, very different from each other. So, the Great Kublai Khan needed Chinese Ministers and/or Advisers to help him rule over China. Brute force alone will not rule people. You can make the people afraid of you but ultimately you need their cooperation. You must make the masses, the people of the land believe in you. But how do you do that? (See day 3 of this report).

Climbing The Wall is not easy. Of course they have stairs but those stairways were laid out for totally fit people, not for 68 year olds like me. But a steady pace, a few breaks here and there and I got to the top. Once on the top of the wall you begin to realize that stairs go on endlessly. The Wall, like a long, long snake, meanders along the ridges of mountains seemingly forever. Up and up stairs towards the zenith of a mountain, then back down again to a lower part, then up again, etc., etc. All of it was “stairs”. A few respites here and there to catch your breath, but the ‘walk’ along the wall is in reality, a constant up and down staircase. You need to be physically very fit. The wall is 5500 Miles long, in case you feel up to it.

I trudged along for some time on top of the wall, being followed by locals who wanted to sell me picture books, t- shirts, wallets or whatnot. I met some ‘guards’ sitting cozily on a bench who were sunning themselves against a southern wall on this winter day. I sat with them a bit and we smiled at each other. We could not talk to each other, the guards and I, but we all had a good time. The Wall is not that much visited in the winter, especially in this section because it is so far from Beijing. Few visitors greeted us. Thomas, the guide, was helping Ross and Carol at the moment and I just sat and thought the above thoughts about the Mongols breaching this monstrosity of a border. It seemed an impossible feat yet history proves that even this Great Wall was conquered. The pictures in books do not do this monument justice; this is a spot you must see for yourself.

It was by now time for lunch. So, very carefully, we needed to walk back to the car. Again, up and down stairs, until we made it to the parking lot. By now my legs ached. I can only imagine how Ross felt with a bad knee (he will have surgery in May) or how Carol ached with arthritis in her knees and back. So I could not complain, they would have laughed at me.

Thomas suggested asking a local farmer to prepare our lunch. There is a very small village near the wall and those people live off the tourists, of course. Some ‘farmers’ have converted their houses into whatever tourists need. Extra rooms were made into motel rooms and if you want to eat at this farmer’s house one of the empty rooms will be made into a dining room. Chinese are very practical people. They can improvise easily. So we ate our lunch at a local farmer’s place. A fold-up table was set up at the foot of several beds, 5 stools were found and voila, a dining room. The food was delicious! No, we did not have the best looking dining room and the furnishings were only basic but we came for the food. The food was great and plentiful. The meal for 5 adults, including beer for all came to U.S. 20.-, the experience for us? Priceless!

We drove back to Beijing, waved goodbye to Thomas and decided to have Beijing Duck for dinner. We got to the most famous restaurant shortly before 8 pm but were not allowed in, the place closes at 8 pm sharp. Bummer, we walked past a McDonalds and had dinner in a common, usual, not very well known place. The food however was good. 

40 Beijing, China Day 1 - Arrival

Beijing, China. (Days 1) Arrival

Our cruise ended actually at Tianjin, a harbor town about 2 hours southeast of Beijing. We needed transportation from the ship to Beijing proper and thought transportation was included in our cruise package deal, especially when we had this detail confirmed in writing. But it turned out to be just another nightmare arrangement we had to settle with Oceania, the cruise line. Oceania did not budge. Only with the help of our travel agent did we find transportation to Beijing. It was a nightmare because our travel agent is in Vancouver, Canada. We were at sea and the Internet was very spotty and the time difference is 11 hours. We here in Beijing are 11 hours ahead of Vancouver. It certainly added another big wrinkle in dealing with Oceania. I can no longer recommend this cruise line.

 The harbor terminal is a great, new, building. Tucked far away from civilization, it is an efficient port that is very good when ships are there. But once a ship leaves it falls asleep, I am sure of it. So it was necessary to get into town from this isolated location. I got a bit nervous when our pick up was not there. Usually there is a hand held sign for me to read with my name on it. There were others holding up signs but none for me. At 9.25 AM o’clock, for our planned 9.30 AM pickup date, no sign. How do you ask for help in Chinese? I was negotiating a taxi fare (it would have cost at least $U.S. 280.-) when our arranged car showed up. Right on time, without a sign held up, but all went ok in the end. Phew, that was close. Too close for my comfort and totally the fault of Oceania. My frantic last second arrangements via email worked out in the end but it would have been easier if Oceania had honored their negotiated agreement.

Our contract spelled out that all transfers are included. People who had to get to the airport were taken there by Oceania. We asked to be taken to the airport too. Since our flight was not booked for the day of disembarkation, Oceania would not take us to the airport and surely would not drive us to downtown Beijing. Other passengers we know very well who also had delayed air travel were taken by Oceania to the airport. Go figure! Oceania did not care, we were on our own. Once you step off the gangway of the ship, Oceania no longer recognizes you as their passenger. That is what I was told by a crew member and it certainly was how I was treated. Well, good bye Oceania. I wish you good luck. If I see you again it will be from the rail of another ship, I will certainly wave to you. You have good people on your ship but your head-office needs to rethink a lot of things.

So off to Beijing we went. We arrived at the Novotel Hotel Beijing Xinqiao on Chong Wen Men Xi Da Ji. The hotel is at a perfect location. After checking in we just walked the neighborhood to see what was around us. A food court is across the street, another food street is nearby. The subway is in front of the door. Taxis always wait for passengers at the side of the hotel. The hotel is within walking distance (20 minutes) to Tiananmen Square and going south, to the Temple of Heaven.


We did nothing that day but oriented ourselves within Beijing. Ate a Chinese dinner on the food street and called it a day.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

39 Dalian, China

Dalian, China

I was lucky; China Customs picked me for a face to face interview. They did not only pick me but a random selection of the passengers on board; they wanted to see all of us at midnight. No kidding, midnight. The problem was most people they selected were asleep at that time. What to do?
The Ship’s Purser negotiated to have the face to face interview at 9.00 AM the next morning instead. And what was all this about? A Chinese woman had a list; maybe 30 people were on the list. You step up to her, passport in hand, she looked at the passport, hooked off the name in the list, glanced at you, nodded her head and off you go. Not a word was spoken. A very strange interview! Stranger even to want do do this at midnight. Welcome to China.

We docked at Dalian at 11.00 AM but somehow the Chinese Border Security was already on board. Were they on board since Shanghai? After Shanghai we went to Korea, so did they go to Korea with the ship? Did they jump onto the ship like harbor pilots do at each port? When did they come on board? If they wanted a midnight interview they had to be on board, right? Again, very strange to have Chinese border guards on our ship while we are at sea coming from Korea. Stranger still to think we were being watched since we left what? Shanghai? Or even Inchon? Welcome to China. The hidden agenda of China give me the creeps!

There was an unnatural quiet at the Dalian Harbor. No band greeted us. We were the only large ship at the pier, not even a freighter was being loaded near by. Carol and I took a walk then took a taxi to the Wanda Mansion Complex. This is a newly built housing tower complex for the super rich. Does this sound right to you? I said for the Super rich! Here in China? Yes in deed, super rich. And Dalian, this city in the North of China is the residence of the richest man in China. This man has more money that Buffet. He alone owns Wanda, the corporation that recently bought AMC movie theaters in the U.S. (all of them) for 2.4 billion U.S. The same man just a few months ago, with the help of the Mayor of Chicago, announced he will build a new skyscraper on North Shore Drive that will become an icon of Chicago. What is the cost of the hotel, residence building? a mere 980 million U.S. dollars. There are many more such acquisitions in the U.S. by a selected group of Chinese billionaires. I just follow the Wanda Corporation.

Not many people have paid attention to this, or to the seemingly sleepy city of Dalian, way North in China. Dalian is a city that has seen its troubles in the past. It was a Manchurian City, and then a Chinese City, then Russian, then occupied by Japan and then it recently reverted back to China. The architecture, the mix of cultures, the city layout is so very different from any other place in China. Large parks, roads that radiate outwards from large round-abouts remind me of Paris. Some folks here on board thought it beautiful. Sure this is China, too.

We were only 6 hours in Dalian, not enough time to do much. Since my focus was the Wanda Corporation I did not visit down town nor the parks and or large Squares. Beijing claims Tiananmen Square is the largest public square. Not quite, Dalian’s public square is bigger.

I just took a few pictures of buildings going up, walked over brand new, but already cracked sidewalks, watched a Ferrari Testa Rosa drive by and looked at the stunned face of a delivery guy on a shabby tricycle when he saw the car. There are two levels in China. The ‘have’ level of grandeur and wealth with Ferraris is one level and the level of the delivery guy who still pedals his bicycle in freezing cold weather to make deliveries is the other. There really is no middle class. Dalian has both levels but there seems to be an unusually higher number of the ‘haves’ here. One can judge by the buildings built and going up, anyhow.


The visit to Dalian was short. We are off to Beijing now and that is the end of my cruise adventure for a while. Last blog will most likely be from Beijing. 

38 Inchon, Korea

Inchon, Korea

The Chinese New Year ends next week and Monday everybody goes back to work. I came to Korea explicitly to see the DMZ close up and to walk one of the tunnels the North Koreans dug so that they could move armies into South Korea without being detected. The traffic at the end of the Chinese New Year was unusually dense; it took some time to get to the 38th parallel.

The dividing line between North and South Korea is a heavily fortified, demarcated zone.  Both sides built walls, fences, anti-tank installations and mined woods and fields with millions of mines. Signs are everywhere spelling out “Danger Mines” in 2 languages, Korean and English. Even harmless looking roads ‘near’ the De-Militarized-Zone (DMZ) are fenced in and signed profusely with ‘ Mines ‘. Soldiers are guarding every conceivable infiltration point, loaded weapons at the ready. The situation feels tense and is palpably dangerous. We needed our passports to enter the DMZ. A Military Police (MP) officer stepped on to our bus and inspected the passports and checked out every face. While it is routine for him, he still did not take his responsibility lightly. He was taking his job seriously and outside the bus were 4 or 5 additional MP’s with loaded weapons pointed at the bus. It only takes one spark to start a fire; the area seems to be a powder keg, waiting to go off.

The latest news reports from North Korea are not friendly. It is said that the North Koreans hate 3 Nations in particular. They hate the U.S., South Korea and then Japan. We arrived at the DMZ just after the face slashing of a US Diplomat. Not a good sign, is it? The face slasher was a S. Korean but rumor has it that he was a defector from the North. Who knows?

We all recall former U.S. President Bush calling North Korea the axis of evil. It sure seems this way when standing at the DMZ. The fact that North Korea, in the early 1970’s, dug at least 4 underground tunnels that would have been able to move whole armies into S. Korea shows their militaristic thinking. Those tunnels were only detected after a N. Korean defector, who worked on the tunnels, told the secret to S. Korea. To find the tunnels on the S. Korean side without digging was not an easy task. It took months to finally confirm that the defector told the truth. S. Korea, even today, still wonders if there are more tunnels than the 4 they discovered. Tunnel #1 was discovered in 1974, #2 in 1975 and tunnel #3 in 1978. Then after some years they found tunnel #4 in 1990. Like I said, nobody knows how many tunnels there are. Maybe some of them have been discovered but the public has never been told about them. Each of the tunnels was built to let 30,000 men pass through each hour. The tunnels are deep in the ground.

We visited tunnel #3 and an electric train took us down 230 feet below ground. The walls are rough hewn into the granite ground. Each visitor has to wear a hard hat to protect their heads. The tunnel we walked through was low. I am 6.3 and had to crouch down to move forward. In some sections so much so that it felt like ‘duck walking’. After maybe 100 yards I stopped walking, turned around and ‘walked’ back. No use banging my head on the rough ceiling and getting injured. I got the basic picture, I saw the tunnel and left the rest to Carol who went on and reports that after about 400 yards one comes to a concrete wall that blocks the tunnel. Signs with “no pictures” faced Carol and there were short circuit security cameras recording everything near that blockage. Nothing to do but walk back, reports Carol. I understand that there are 2 more, similar blockages like this, deeper inside this tunnel. No picture taking was allowed inside the tunnel. But you know people; some had their phone cameras clicking in overtime. We left our cameras in lockers above ground, we are still too honest.


Tunnel #3 is open to the public and is a tourist attraction today. The tunnel is 54 km from Seoul, Korea’s capital. Interesting is the fact that S. Korea made the location of the tunnels public. I would have built devious traps inside each tunnel knowing I could kill 30,000 enemies each hour. S. Korea is nice to not do that. Or? Maybe they did that with some other tunnels they found and nobody knows about it. What do you think?

Every young man in S. Korea is required to serve in the military for 21 months. Every S. Korean is aware that they live their daily life within range of missiles, artillery and sudden attack by North Korea. I think knowing this adds to inner tension or one gets so used to the danger that it fades into oblivion. The DMZ is 4 km wide.  It lies 2 km in the South and 2km plus in the North. In case a war starts again the US President automatically becomes the Commander in Chief of the South Korean Army. The DMZ is a line drawn along the 38th parallel and represents a cease fire line, not an actual border. Technically North and South Korea are still at war. Inside the 2 km border on the Southern side is a village named Freedom Village with 500 inhabitants today that live in abandoned US barracks. Land and buildings are too precious to just leave barren. This village harbored North Korean spies in the past that came over as refugees. The S. Koreans take to N. Korean spies with a smile. If S. Korea needs info about N. Korea state secrets they found ways to just ‘buy’ the information in North Korea. People are poor in N. Korea and hungry too. With enough money there are few secrets money cannot buy.

A large amount of the DMZ runs along the Han and Injin rivers. When the rivers are frozen in the winter people could easily walk across were it not for the fencing on both sides. There is no longer a mutual trust among the people. The North Koreans are forbidden to learn English, it is the language of the enemy, they are told.

The only bridge still in existence is the Freedom Bridge. There is only one bridge between the two halves of Korea. We made a stop next to the bridge but of course nobody was crossing it. We also stopped at a lookout point where the border is clearly visible. The North is easy to recognize, there are no trees growing on their side. All the hills are barren. The trees were used up long ago for fuel or food (people ate the leaves) and nobody replants them. For me that alone was a disturbing sign.

How did all this happen? How did this wall spring up, this division of one Nation? Korea has a long, long history. It would take a few books to write the Korean History, so let me just go to the 19th Century and start from there. Korea wrests itself from China’s Qing dynasty after the Sino-Japanese war. China recognizes an independent Korea in 1895. But in 1905 Japan invaded Korea and ruled brutally over Korea until 1945. The 40 years of Imperial Japanese rule made the Koreans hate the Japanese. Japan's rule was without mercy. To speak Korean was forbidden. Korean women were forced to become Comfort Women to supply the Japanese army. Capital punishment was commonplace etc. After Japan lost World War II Korea was given its “independence” with the help of the Americans and the Russians. But Korea was split along the 38th parallel when it became obvious that the Soviets and the Americans did not agree on a form of government. All went well for a few years but the differences in political views became aggravated when China stepped into the picture. China had just become a Communistic country supported by Russia. The new China did not recognize the agreement that was signed by the Qing Dynasty creating an independent country.

Kim Il Sung, a puppet of Russia, a Communist and North Korean Prime Minister, received help from Russia to fight the occupying Japanese during World War II. After the U.S. dropped the Bombs on Japan and ended the war with Japan, Kim Il Sung saw his chance to make all of Korea another communistic county. He now turned to China and asked for support to kick the remaining US soldiers out of South Korea. The U.S., not wanting another war, agreed to a compromise and to separate Korea into a communistic part and democratic part. But in 1950 North Korea declared war on South Korea and invaded. The North pushed the South almost off the peninsula. Just a small area around the most Southern part of Korea, around Busan, remained free. In 1953 South Korea asked the U.S. For help and MacArthur landed in Inchon and pushed the Northern Armies back to the Chinese border. Diplomats agreed to a cease fire and a separation of politics around the 38th parallel, and the rest you know.

Kim Il Sung ruled over North Korea. The total death toll for this Korean war?
·         33,000 American Soldiers killed,
·         1.3 million North Koreans died,
·         Civilians and South Koreans 1.2 million,
·         Chinese 500 thousand.
Oh, did I forget to tell you that the U.S. had to fight the Chinese, too. And fight some Russians?  It was a rotten war, betrayal and lies on all Asian sides.

After Kim Il Sung died the power went to his son Kim Jong Il. After Kim Jong Il passed away in 2011 the power over North Korea now lies with Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong-un, a 27 year old brutal leader, who advises foreigners and tourists to leave South Korea because their lives are in danger. Nice guy, right? He also had his uncle and others killed because they doubted his ability to lead. Like I said, nice guy! This 27 year old kid is now in charge of all North Korea, he is the Dictator. He seems to know everything; his word is law in North Korea.

You will find a lot of Kim names in Korea. Kim is the last name for 20% of the population in Korea. Another last name is Lee, about 10% of the population. The reason is that in old Korea most people had just one name, Jong Il for example. But when dealing with other nations one name was not enough so the people added their King’s name, to show their allegiance. About 1000 years ago the King’s name was Kim, so everybody from that time was a person from the Kim regime. If you were a true descendant of the Royal house of Kim, you had your name entered in to a Royal Book.  Today the Kim’s are mostly the descendants of the name alone. Very few are true bloods and very few Kim’s can trace their heritage to royalty. The same story relates to the Lee or other names. The house of Lee was around 100 years ago, so very much more recent. Kim is a very old and honored name in Korea.

After the visit to the DMZ we had a Korean lunch back in Seoul. Bulgogi (marinated beef) served on a grill right on the table. Kimchi (fermented, spicy vegetables), Radish Salad (mild, white radish salad), vegetable laced pancakes, more assorted veggies and of course rice. One person did not eat meat; she was served Bibimbap (rice with lots of veggies).

After lunch we just walked a shopping street. For me the walking was mainly for exercise. I did not need anything of the stuff that was offered in the stores.

All in the entire visit to the DMZ was a sad trip. To just split a country in half just because there are different points of view in politics is sad. I found this even stupid. Both sides in Korea speak the same language. Both sides have the same roots, even the same last name. After 60 years plus, the results speak for themselves when one looks at which political view was (is) the better one.
South Korea is an economic power-house with an abundance of food and healthy, happy people.

North Korea is a hermit nation where people are fed the wrong info and don't even have the most basic needs filled. There are foods shortages, people must do as told or else. There is no freedom of speech. Ruled today by the spoiled, insane, young Dictator, Kim Jong-Un, who might even, one day, push a button to prove himself (in his mind alone) equal to the rest of the world. Communism, the theory sounds good, but it turned into a disaster when applied to real people.
I think the DMZ will be there awhile. I cannot see a reunification like Germany had. The difference and the brainwashing of the northern people are severe. The DMZ keeps the northern ideology contained. Maybe that is a good thing.

37 Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China

The city has changed on the face of it. The changes are unbelievable. Some of Shanghai looks almost futuristic. This is not the Shanghai I remember from 1990. Only 25 years have passed but what a change it brought to this city, one of China's largest. Pudong for example, today a very modern, huge part of Shanghai was then just rice paddies. The changes to Shanghai occurred rapidly. Almost like a sudden explosion. Today's population lies somewhere around 25 million people. Shanghai is huge.

Skyscrapers are being built in ever increasing numbers to give the population the latest modern dwellings. While esthetically those buildings look like chicken coops to me, they are effective for housing the millions of people. How else would you house the masses? Highways had to be built, roads needed to be widened, tunnels to be dug, and bridges to be built. Shanghai, at one point, was the city with half the world’s high-rise building cranes actively occupied. The result shows today. The smartest and most creative minds established a new Shanghai using the latest worldwide technology and creativity.

There are some old parts; some Hu tongs are left, but not many. The buildings on the Bund are still standing. Old colonials from the 1930 or so, the former financial and political street looks old now. The Bund became a historical landmark. Only built around 1920/30, these buildings look ancient compared to the free flowing, curved, glass-enclosed superstructures of today. Shanghai certainly had a boom in construction. The city planning board must have been a busy place. The result is a modern and forward looking image. That is what every visitor will see when visiting China. The back alleys look a little better too.  There are hardly any bicycles being ridden. Even scooters are not common any longer. Electrical wires moved underground.

What about the minds or behaviors of the people? Have they changed? I smiled when I saw a group of people still throwing trash into the street and drop cigarette butts on the ground. If not forced by the “Government” to behave in a certain way, there would be no change. I want to believe that Shanghai or China is trying to break the old, a bit sloppy, ways of the population, but I see also an uphill battle for the people in charge. Plastic pails, mops and bric-a-brac still stand on the balconies of the tenement skyscrapers. Even modern office buildings have cardboard lying in the entrance to catch the biggest pedestrian dirt. Chinese are very practical people, aesthetics take 2nd place over practicality. Hygiene is not the most important part of their life, they still occasionally spit on the ground in public places. Those things are hard to change in the populace, no matter the latest modern conveniences. Motorbikes seem to never get washed and ropes or duct tape hold broken things in place. In hidden corners stand utilitarian items such as plastic covers, trash cans, containers and items too bulky to stuff into a closet inside the house. It is much easier to just have them outside when needed. Chinese are very practical people.

The city is too large to explore quickly. The few days in port does not allow enough time to see even a little bit of what Shanghai has to offer. We went to a performance of Chinese acrobats one night. Young performers gave a stunning display of their acrobatic skill and agility. They must have had lots of practice. The underlying story of these abilities lies on the Chinese farm. Wanting to stand out, young people on farms in the country, practiced in the winter months or during their daily chores in ways to juggle dishes or throw around pots or they played with different ways to jump through hoops, etc. Their abilities were amazing. The best performers in the past were allowed to show their skills to the Nobles or even the Emperor. If they were good enough they were handsomely rewarded. Today, there are no longer emperors. To be on TV is now the goal. To be recognized as the greatest is what drives them on. All the performers we saw craved lots of applause.

We made a lunch date with other passengers for the next day at the famous dumpling restaurant next to the Yu Gardens. Yu Gardens is a landmark in Shanghai that everybody knows. We took a taxi to get there but landed someplace else. Don't ask me where, I have no clue! But I knew from having been to the restaurant before that we were in the wrong location. There was no Yu Gardens nearby. Was it done deliberately? I had the Yu Gardens address written down in Chinese and showed it to the taxi driver who read it, he nodded his head and off he went. I was already a little suspicious when he went onto the elevated highway, a very modern super-slab. But how do you ask a taxi driver in Chinese “Hey buddy, are we going the right way?” With all the new roads I thought he might know a new, better way. Wrong! The meter kept on going and was at 50 Renminbi when he indicated we had arrived. Arrived where? So we showed him the written direction again and he just smiled and turned around and drove us back to where we came from, the meter running! At 60 Renminbi I asked him to turn off his meter and told him in broken Chinese we want to go to Yu Gardens. He just nodded his head and brought us at least close enough to walk a few blocks to the restaurant. We were late, of course, but still we met the others. Was this diversion a mistake or misunderstanding or a deliberate way to make extra money? I let you decide!

After lunch we shopped a little in the area around Yu Gardens and then took the subway to another part of town. The subway was packed. While the subway is well organized and modern, the mass of people makes taking a ride a chore. So crammed was the first train that we waited for the next train. But even this train had hardly any room to squeeze in. We were held in place by bodies around us. There was no real need to hold on, nobody could move.  Getting off the train after 5 stops was not easy. Luckily I am tall and can use my elbows when I have to. Once off this line we had to find our connection to the next line. The signage was good, but the masses of people seemed to have increased. Not that the people were unfriendly or very pushy, there were just too many people. Sure I had to remove one Chinese fellow by lifting him up by the collar because he pushed himself ahead of me, but there are always people like him. He understood and queued up, somewhat. I think if you know the subway system in Shanghai it is a cheap (4 Renminbi = 50 cents) way to move about, but you need to time it right. Or is it always like that? I don't know but it sure was packed to the limit in my eyes.

I bought an overhead-sized, collapsible, wheeled suitcase at a small store. We bargained back and forth. The price quoted seemed high to me so I bid 1/3 of the asking price. With a few ups and downs we settled on a price of 125 Renminbi (about $17, - U.S.). While fair in my eyes I learned later that I overpaid somewhat. It is an art to bargain in China. Other people came back to the ship having found true “bargains”. The quality of the products is about the same as in the U.S. since most products today are “Made in China” and are sold world-wide. It is becoming a small world indeed.

The biggest obstacle today is the language. The tech guys need to sit down and find a great way to translate via computers. What is in the market so far is inefficient and too primitive. Apple, Google, Microsoft? Anybody hear me?  Are you reading this? We need an app that translates any language to another language and is easy and fast!

We took a taxi back to the ship. Well we tried to, but the first taxi we sat in looked at our written directions back to the ship and chased us out of his taxi. He would not take us. He seemed indignant that we even tried to use his car. The next taxi took us and we got back to the ship, well close enough that we could walk. Construction around the ship seemed to throw the driver for a loop, he could not figure out how to drive onto the pier. Again not being able to talk or read/write was the biggest difficulty of the day. The rest was peachy.

Just before ‘all aboard’ the next day we took another walk through the shopping streets of Shanghai. Carol wanted to walk the famous Nanjing Road. I took her to Beijing Road instead.
Beijing Road seemed busier and looked a lot cheaper. Nanjing is the most expensive road in Shanghai for the very wealthy shoppers. No use going to Nanjing road, right?