Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving and Family

Lots of cooking. Lots of family. And no time for putting up posts. Please bear with me a day or two until I can get my act together again and continue my China posts.

Hope everyone had a great holiday.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Great Wall

We got lucky. The lousy weather the day before had turned, during the night, into a rain storm with strong winds that blew the clouds away. Our day for the Great Wall dawned chillier but clear and sunny.

There are several places of the Great Wall that are within driving distance of Beijing. The most restored and most visited is the section at Badaling which is where we were headed.

I knew this area was built up with hotels and shops. There was even a rumor about a Starbucks on top of the Great Wall (not so). And I had heard stories about not even being able to get to the Wall without being chased by vendors selling things like silk scarfs. Also not so.

Our bus let us off by one of the hotels and we had to walk (uphill) from there. Past a sign displaying The Great Wall, there were very few vendors. We reached a plaza and waited while David bought the tickets. Our first stop after going through the entryway was a group picture, available for purchase, of course. (We did decide to buy it as a souvenier of our visit.)

And THEN we had a chance to climb to the top of the Wall. David had advised we head left (east) as the climb is a bit easier and it is usually less crowded. He was right about the crowd and with the sun also off to the east, it gave us a great view and great photo ops of the Wall as it stretched out to the west.

It was very windy and very chilly. The Wall is a hard climb. The top varied from almost flat to almost vertical. Some of the more vertical areas had steps but many just had ridges. A tough climb.

After strollling in the eastern direction, I insisted we also walk on the western slope. We did that too and found it even more difficult. Finding a quiet corner in one of the watchtowers, we rested, enjoyed the scenery, and watched the people walking back and forth.

It was a great morning and being able to walk on the Great Wall was a highlight of the trip for Jerry.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Review: Eagle Creek Undercover Hidden Pocket

My husband and I both travel with this Eagle Creek Nylon Hidden Pocket. We position it behind our side pants pocket. That way, any bulge simply looks like we have something in that pocket. In that position, it is safe and also comfortable and easy to access.

Yes, we tried over the neck pouches and no matter what we did, they were still obvious to any casual looker. And we tried waist pouches too. I gave up on mine pretty fast once I bought the Eagle Creek Travel Gear Undercover Hidden Pocket . Took my husband a bit longer. But now he loves his too.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Beijing Opera and Peking Duck Dinner

With no rest for the (very!) weary, we were back at the hotel for about an hour to get ready for dinner and the opera. Dinner tonight was a special Peking Duck banquet.

Having had Peking Duck several times in the U.S., we were really looking forward to this evening. Unfortunately, the dinner was not as expected. It was all served lazy susan style (as was to be all of our Chinese meals) and the duck was not particularly tasty. All in all, that part of the evening was a disappointment.

Not so the opera performance. If one were expecting a typical European opera type performance (which fortunately we weren't), they would be very disappointed. Highlights of Beijing Opera are the face paints which are used to depict different types of characters, and the characteristic singing, which some people equate to a screech. We saw several short performances, each one explained by a lighted display on the side of the stage. Everything from costumes, to face paint, to acrobatics (movements) to the singing has a lot of significance. I really enjoyed this.

Then back to the hotel where everyone collapsed. Early departure tomorrow: The Great Wall!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is about an hour from the Forbidden City. It is where the Emperors went to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of summer in Beijing. It is all man-made, including the lakes and lagoons.

The weather was getting even more threatening. And like most of what we had already seen in Beijing, it was very crowded. It is one place I wish we had more time and better weather, as I love gardens.

The Summer Palace is known for The Long Corridor, a covered walkway famous for both its length (about 1/2 mile) and its more than 14,000 paintings.

Like the colors in the Forbidden City, I was quite taken with the colors and paintings on the ceilings and posts within the Long Corridor. As I walked along the corridor, one painting after another grabbed my attention. Yes, I definitely dawdled here. I could have spent my entire visit in at the Summer Palace simply strolling the Long Corridor.

We had our one, almost major, mishap at the Summer Palace. David told us to walk to the end of the Long Corridor and he would meet us there. Our San Francisco friends, Carol and Bill, did just that. I would have also but Jerry was walking on the outside and spotted that David had stopped at the pier where one could board boats to 'cruise' the lake. He had gotten tickets for the group to do just that and we all boarded, with Jerry and I picking up the rear. As David usually does, he counts the group members to make sure everyone is present. He came up short.

With several separate areas on the boat, Jerry and I didn't notice that Carol and Bill were missing. (We thought they had boarded before us.) The boat headed back to shore. Fortunately, it didn't take long for Carol and Bill to find us. They had followed David's instructions and, yes, they had walked all the way to the end of the Long Corridor. Upon realizing no one else from the group was there, they traced back their steps. Very smart on their part. Without too long a delay, but admittedly a very nervous one, we were soon on our way again.

The boat ride was nice and, of course, would have been nicer if the weather had been better. But the best part for me was this adorable little girl that I sat next to.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Check Baggage Allowances Before Flying

Before flying (and maybe even before purchasing a ticket), be sure to check the airline's baggage allowances. The rules on luggage are changing faster than I can keep up with them, which is why I'm not simply listing the information here.

Keep in mind that for domestic flights (within the continental U.S.), most U.S. airlines are charging at least $15 for the FIRST piece of checked luggage and $25 for the second piece. Weight allowances shrunk a while back from 70 lbs per bag to 50 lbs per bag so don't try to stuff everything into one checked piece. You might find the charge on your overweight piece costs even more than checking a second bag.

In addition to this, the allowable size of carryons has also shrunk. Many airlines allowed 51 inches (length + width + height). Now that number is down to 45 or 46 inches.

There is still an airline or two that don't charge for checked luggage. Southwest is one of them. So check out the baggage charges before buying a ticket. I don't know about anyone else but if the price is the same for an airline that charges and one that doesn't, I, of course, will be buying my ticket from the airline that doesn't charge.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is often described as a 'city within a city'. After our visit there, I most definitely agree.

As the Chinese imperial palace from the mid-Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Forbidden City is located in the middle of Beijing, literally. For almost 500 years, it was the home of the Chinese Emperor and his household, and the ceremonial and political center of the government. Today, it is now open to the public and is the home of the Palace Museum.

Entrance to the Forbidden City can be through one of 3 gates. In the time of the Emperor, only the Emperor and his Empress entered through the center gate. Each of the large doors has 81 'knobs' on them, 81 = 9 x 9. Nine was the royal number and there are many places, within the Forbidden City, to see signs of this, such as a display of 9 small dragons on a roof.

After passing through the doorways and short corridor, we found ourselves at the top of the stairs to the first of several huge squares.

We climbed stairs to view inside the large pavilions. It was very difficult to see inside the one housing the throne room. Besides being very dark inside, the crowds made it very difficult to get to the front to see. We, literally, had to push and shove our way to the front. I've never been in a situation like that and it got scary as I found myself being carried along by the crowd.

It was amazing as we walked from one huge courtyard to another. One area even had its own canal.

We were constantly awed by the architecture and the colors. Yes, we had a very cloudy (smoggy?) day, but the colors in the artwork were still beautiful and, fortunately, we were able to capture some of this.

We then had the opportunity to really find out why the Forbidden City is called a city within a city. There are doorways all along the outside walls of the plazas. Most lead into rooms off the plaza that now house the exhibits that make up the Palace Museum. But some of these doorways lead into small courtyards.

And off those small courtyards are living quarters and doorways leading into other courtyards and alleyways. Without our guide it would have been extremely easy to get lost in this part of the city within a city.

To My Subscribers

I want you all to know that I am putting up photos and videos from our trip to China. I know that these often don't come 'through' on email subscriptions.

So if you want to see the full post, just click on the title of the post (like 'To My Subscribers') to be taken to the original post.

Hope you enjoy!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Review: Beijing & Shanghai by Eyewitness Travel

I purchased this book in preparation for our trip to China. The reason I limited it to these two cities is because, according to our itinerary, these would be the only cities we might have some free time.

I found the content very easy to read and very thorough. It provided me with a very good understanding of the two cities, with excellent maps and photos. The advice on shopping and bargaining was worth the price of the book alone.

I did feel, though, that the book had two strikes against it. The first is that the book is heavy and not one I'd want to carry around in my purse. (So I left it home.) The second problem, for me, were words written in italics. The typestyle used in the book made it difficult for me to distinguish between the letters 'b' and 'h'. Certainly not an issue when reading English but a big problem when I tried to learn some of the Chinese words listed in the back of the book. However, I have to add that for younger eyes, or eyes not needing new reading glasses (like I do), this probably won't be an issue.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square, known to many people as the place of the massacre in 1989, was our first stop for the day. David, our Viking guide, warned us to stay very close, especially when crossing the street. He told us it would be very crowded and to try and stay in sight of his Viking Cruises flag.

We were all issued small receiver boxes. These worked wonderfully and without them we would have missed a good portion of David's commentary. They are about the size of a deck of cards with a neck rope and an ear piece for the left ear. The reception was usually good up to about 25 feet away which allowed us freedom to look around and to wander a bit, instead of just trying to concentrate on what David was saying.

The first thing we noticed was the line of hundreds of Chinese, zigzagging in an orderly manner around the square. They were lined up to get into the mausoleum that is Chairman Mao’s tomb. I had read about the tomb but had no idea how big the building really was. It looks more like a huge fancy villa than it does a tomb.

We wandered a bit around the Square, overwhelmed by the size of it and the number of Chinese. And then it happened….what David had warned us about. The Chinese tourists like to take pictures with us Western tourists. With sign language and waving of cameras and much laughing, one of the Chinese tourists would stand next to us with their arm around us while a friend took a picture. And then they’d trade places. It was a lot of fun.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Westin Hotel - Beijing - Financial District

Our accommodation for three nights was at the Westin in Beijing's financial district. This is truly a 5 star hotel with luxurious accommodations and rooms filled with amenities including things like slippers and robes.

The hotel has several restaurants but the only one we ate in was Senses. And it was fantastic. While items are available a la carte, the restaurant is really set up for a buffet. We had three breakfasts there and one dinner.

The selection was enormous, including both Asian and Western type foods. For dinner, besides some typical items like salads and cheeses, there was a soup/noodle station, a carving station and a sushi station. In addition to that, there was an area where the diner could get cuts of meat or chicken cooked to order. There were piles of prawns and spring rolls. In the hot food section were woks filled with meats, fish, vegetables and soups. Of course there were gorgeous looking deserts and loads of (EXCELLENT!) fruit.

Service was top notch with teacups being kept full, dirty dishes being whisked away and our napkins being refolded when we stepped away from the table.

Front desk service was also excellent and I converted some U.S. dollars to yuans. As our guide said, the exchange rate at the hotel was very fair and I didn’t have to go in search of an ATM machine, although there was one way in a first floor back corner of the hotel.

My only complaint about the hotel itself was the temperature control in the room. It was warmer than I would have preferred and couldn’t get it reset lower. I mentioned this at the front desk and, when we returned from a day out, I noticed that the thermostat was now set lower. It must be something controlled by housekeeping and the adjustment was made.

My other comment (not really a complaint) had to do with the location of the hotel. Since it was in the financial district, it was surrounded by other business buildings and the area was not conducive to an evening (or early morning) stroll. It’s not that we would have felt unsafe. But when I stroll in a foreign city I want it to feel foreign….not like I’m walking about the financial district of any major U.S. city.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How To Pack For a Trip to Antarctica

I know this is a bit off the current topic of our trip to China, but I've been contacted by people heading to Antarctica in January and February 2009 and they all want to know what to pack.

The big question is, essentially, how to pack for the hot temperatures of Buenos Aires and the cold of Antarctica. The answer is layer.

My husband and I travel, if we at all can, with only carryons. This included our trip to Antartica. We both have backpacks that we use for essentials, like medicines. We both also have carryon size rolling suitcases.

Over the years we have developed a wardrobe of travel clothes that include supplex nylon pants that, typically, dry overnight. And most of our shirts are coolmax and will also dry quickly. So our usual wardrobe, on a casual trip, is two pairs of pants and 3-4 shirts, each.

Taking advantage of coming from the cold Northeast, we wore to the airport one pair of long pants, one of our quick dry T shirts, a fleece long sleeve jacket, then a fleece vest over the jacket, topped off with our gortex jackets. Of course we peeled off most of that when we boarded the plane.

Packed in the suitcase was a folding bag I had purchased on sale at LL Bean. When we deplaned in Argentina, I pulled out the folding bag and all of our winter stuff went in there. In short sleeved coolmax and our supplex pants, we were ready for hot Buenos Aires.

In our suitcase were additional pairs of wool socks, two pairs for each of us of sock liners, ditto on silk long underwear, a scarf, a hat, gloves/mittens and glove liners, windproof/waterproof pants (to slip on over our regular pants), and thin waterproof mittens (to slip on over our gloves/liners). We did not need to pack boots as the ship provided them. We also received waterproof/windproof shells on board ship.

With the ship typically on the cool side, our daily wear was usually the long underwear top under a T-shirt. (My red long underwear top under a blue or beige short sleeved shirt made a great fashion statement. BG) When we went ashore, or on deck, we simply layered everything on.

For a trip to Antarctica where there will be landings, what we took worked out perfectly for us. For a ship that just cruises Antarctica, if the plan is to spend a lot of time on deck, I would definitely recommend packing similar clothing as the fierce cold winds need to be considered.

For a trip not going any further south than Ushuaia, I would recommend checking current temperatures before departing. We found the temperature in Ushuaia much higher than normal and short sleeves were fine.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Arriving in China - Beijing Airport

Our visit to China started in the Beijing airport. Going through immigration did not take very long but it was obvious that the immigration agent made a point of checking our passports for our China visas.

Getting through Customs was even quicker and easier as we just walked through the Nothing To Declare lane. I did not bother looking for an ATM to get yuans as I was assured we could exchange cash at our hotel at a reasonable rate. (This proved to be accurate.)

As expected, we were met by Viking personnel. Several planes with Viking guests were arriving close to each other and we had to wait a short time before departing the airport.

And, as we walked out of the terminal to our bus, that's when we had our first experience with China smog! We could barely see the terminal next to ours. The sun glowed a strange orange color. While no one noticed any bad odors, nor had difficulty breathing, this was just the beginning of what we experienced during most of our stay in China.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

More On Gold Rush Country, California

We had another full day in California Gold Rush Country. We stopped at a huge winery, Ironstone. Truthfully, we were more impressed with the grounds than the wine. The grounds are huge and, in addition to holding weddings and other catered events, there is also an open air amphitheater for concerts. We began to wonder if perhaps wine was now a secondary money maker to the concert and catering business held there.

As we continued our drive through Gold Rush Country, we stopped and strolled through small towns like Placerville, Auburn (where we spent the night) and Nevada City. We stopped at Sutter's Mill on Sutter's Creek where it all began.

And then back to San Francisco after a very full 3 days of scenic touring. One more full day in San Francisco, and then off to China.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Columbia State Park, California

Columbia State Park preserves an old mining town. Besides the typical shops, restaurants and historic buildings, they also have two historic hotels and a playhouse. This was our destination for the evening as we had a package that included a night at the Fallon Hotel, dinner, play and breakfast the next morning.

As expected, our room at the Fallon was very small. We had a double bed with one side of it pushed up against the wall. In the room (literally) was the sink. And a small 'closet' for the toilet. No telephone. No TV. Shower down the hall. It was very quaint and we figured we'd manage just fine for the one night.

Our included dinner was very good. We had a limited menu to choose from but there were enough choices. Dinner included soup and salad, excellent bread, champagne or sparkling cider. My husband and I had strip steaks and they were excellent.

The play we were seeing was called The Big Bang. It's about two writers looking for backers for their 12 hour play and they provide a synopsis in 1 1/2 hours, using furnishings found around an apartment as props. It was rolling on the floor funny.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown, California

Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is located in Jamestown, California. We had stopped in Jamestown to stroll the streets and pop in and out of the antique and gift shops.

As a last minute decision we decided to check out the railroad museum. As a California state park there was no charge for admission. It turned out to be quite interesting, with some neat (all working) locomotives

and a roundtable that is used during the 'season' when train rides are available.

There is a really great gift shop where I bought some books for my grandchildren. (My way of supporting the park.) In my opinion, Railtown 1897 is a must see for any rail buff.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

More Holiday Gift Ideas

Have you started making your holiday gift list? Does it get harder and harder every year? Does it get longer and longer every year?

Well I found a way to make it easy for myself. I found a great looking gift idea at Nature's Nook, New York.

Click on Soaps and scroll to the bottom of the page. Take a look at the wrapped soap/soap dish combo! What a great idea. This is suitable for both men and women!

Order several to make gift giving easier for you this year. Order some extras to have on hand for that 'last minute party invitation' house gift or for those late additions to your gift list.

I have personally used these soaps and the aromas are fantastic. Your gift recepient will love them!

Hilmar Cheese Company

Hilmar Cheese Company is located in (surprise!) Hilmar, CA. As part of our trip to San Francisco before heading off to China, we spent a few days visiting the Gold Country, the area of the California Gold Rush.

Hilmar is the world's largest single-site cheese and whey manufacturing facility. They make colby, jack and cheddar, most of it for private branding. There is an area where you can see some of the production and they also have a short video describing the cheese making process. We found the video quite interesting.

Afterwards, of course, we sampled our way through the gift shop. If you ever get to Hilmar's, be sure to try the Squeakers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Newark Airport Shuttle Bus

On a recent trip that took us through Newark Airport, we were very pleasantly surprised to find a shuttle bus available to take passengers from the end of Concourse A to the beginning of Concourse C.

We had 1 hour between flights and by the time we got off our first leg, we had a lot less than an hour and I thought we'd have to run for the monorail. Not so.....not only were we fortunate enough to spot the shuttle bus sign but also lucked out on the other end....shuttle bus drops passengers at Gate 71 in Concourse C and we were leaving from Gate 73.

Our flight was boarding when we got there but we made it just fine. If we needed to depend upon the monorail, we could very well have ended up missing our flight.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Review: Viking River Cruises - China

Our trip to China began with an advertisement I received from Viking River Cruises.

I had been keeping my eye on their China's Cultural Delight itinerary. This trip is all inclusive. Not only are all meals included but so are many items that are optional with other companies. So while not the cheapest trip available, I felt it offered the most value.

Then the ad came.....air from the west coast to Beijing and then back from Shanghai for $320 pp!!! We have friends in San Francisco and when I told them about this trip, they immediately decided to join us AND invited us out a week early to do some California sightseeing with them. We had offers we couldn't refuse.

I immediately contacted my travel agent, Ellen, ( and in no time all was professionally booked and we had our cabin assignment for the river cruise portion of the trip.

Viking River Cruises runs a first class operation. Our land hotels in Beijing and Shanghai were top of the line. The hotel in Xi'An was 5 star for that area but, admittedly, was not quite the level of the hotels in the other cities.

The ship (Viking Century Sun) is a beautiful ship. It was kept spotless and the service was excellent. The crew was friendly and accomodating.

We did have one complaint. With outside temperatures running around high 60's, the Captain used fresh air throughout the ventilation systems, including the cabin systems. With the weather we had (rainy and damp), the cabins were chilly. Many complaints from the passengers finally persuaded the Captain to use the air conditioning which removed the moisture from the air. But, unfortunately, it wasn't something we could depend upon. While all of the passengers were off the ship on a shore excursion, it was obvious, by the feel of the cabins when we returned, that the A/C was shut off while we were gone.

That said, if the weather had been more typical for this time of the year, the above would never have been an issue. We had an excellent tour leader and excellent local guides in the areas we visited. Our cruise on the Yangtze River was 9 nights, allowing us to stop along the river and visit places not normally visited by other vessels.

As typical of a small ship, there were lectures on board and evening entertainment was music and/or things like a crew talent show which was excellent.

We really have no major complaints and would not hesitate to take another river cruise through Viking.

To China And Back

My husband and I just returned from a 3 1/2 week trip that took us to San Francisco for a week and to China for the remaining time.

It was a wonderful trip. I kept a diary and have lots of new material for this blog (VBG).

I'm going to try and get new posts up as quickly as possible but dealing with time zone changes, a cold and the normal getting-back-into-routine stuff, I'm not sure how fast this will all happen.

So if you don't want to miss any of the posts as they happen, be sure to Subscribe to the blog.

Or if you'd just like to check back every now and then, that's OK too. All the posts will be accessible by clicking the China link in Categories on the right sidebar.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Delta vs Continental Across the US

I recently had the experience of flying Continental to California and returning using Delta. They are code share partners and this was all part of one reservation.

Some interesting differences. The Continental flight out of Newark, departing at around 2 PM, offered in flight movies and a free snack...and I don't mean just peanuts. Wasn't a full meal but it was enough to keep us happy for the flight. For the movies and TV program segments, an earset was $1.00. The movies were shown on a screen pulled down at the bulkhead seats or on small overhead monitors.

I returned on the red eye, departing at 11 PM. I had saved my headset from my international trip (more on that ... a lot more... later) which was good as Delta wanted $2 for a headset. I got excited as I browsed the inflight magazine and saw how many movies were available for me on the screen built into the seatback in front of me. Great! I could watch a movie I wanted when I wanted.

My elation deflated as I brought up the movie I wanted and discovered that there was a $6 fee to view it. Actually, there was a $6 fee to view ALL the movies.

And food?? Peanuts or a small package of two cookies.

I don't know how the Delta/Northwest merger will shake out but, right now, all things being equal, I'll fly Continental.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

American Back With Kayak

Back in July, I posted about American Airlines leaving the airfare site Kayak.

Well, it appears that whatever their differences were, American and Kayak have managed to resolve them. So AA is now back on Kayak.

Which makes me very happy as I think Kayak is one of the best low airfare search tools out there.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dog Keeps Airfield Free of Birds

Collisions between aircraft and wildlife is dangerous and costly. Some airports use a variety of tools to keep birds away such as the recordings of seagulls screaming in distress used by Tampa International.

Several airports have now started using dogs. Watch one in action on this USAToday page.

Friday, November 7, 2008

With A Bad Economy Comes Great Travel Deals

The stock market drops. Houses are foreclosed. U.S. debt is up, both government and personal. And people are not spending like they used to.

Which makes it tough for companies in the travel business who depend upon clients spending 'disposable income'. But cruise ships still sail. And to fill those cabins, cruise lines have been offering great deals.

For instance, Carnival has dropped prices on some cruises by 20% and has suites starting at $669 PP Plus tax leaving from both coasts.

If you are considering taking a vacation in the near future, be sure to check out these great rates.

Rome, Italy Alert

Travelers are being befriended by locals on trains and in train stations and offered a drink. The drinks turn out to be drugged. The tourists fall asleep and awake to find their belongings stolen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Travel Newsletter Subscription

I recently posted a review of International Travel News. This is a monthly news magazine that I have subscribed to for years. If you have an adventurous, international traveler on your gift list, I'm confident a gift subscription to ITN would be very welcome.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

US Luggage Wide Body Computer Portfolio

(Note: This post goes along with my The Holidays Are Coming post.)

"It took me a long time to find the right travel bag. Since my laptop is so valuable to me, I never like it to be very far out of my reach. This bag holds my laptop and all other essentials.

It has tons of compartments for all the accessories, papers, discs, etc one would need to carry on a business trip making it perfect for business travelers.

I love the fact that it holds my computer plus all the other materials which I use in connection with my computer operations. It has plenty of space, and it is easy to carry.

It has a padded computer compartment to protect my laptop. It holds everything securely so things do not get jumbled or out of place during travel. It contains several organizers which allows me to find things as they are needed. I don't have to hunt for hours for any item regardless of its size.

It is a great travel case available at a reasonable price."

Review Link