Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall of China (Part 1)

IMG_7637Whenever you pick up a postcard on your travels (even if only to look) you’re likely to find that that postcard-worthy photograph has the following characteristics: it’s framed to show the scene from its best perspective (which includes being minus the mobs of people who might be there from time to time) and the weather – if it’s an outdoor photo – will be perfection. For most people we know who have visited Beijing and The Great Wall of China, finding that perfect-weather day where the sun is shining, the air is clear and the crowds are minimal, seems just about impossible. But we did it. We were there that day. Let’s back up…

Using a small cruise ship – the Silversea Silver Shadow – as our transportation, we leave Shanghai to traverse the Yellow Sea enroute to Beijing. But Beijing isn’t on the coast, you might reasonably interject. No, it isn’t, but that won’t stop us from visiting inland. Before we left home in Toronto, we booked what Silversea calls and “Overland Journey.” This means that in mid-cruise, we will leave the ship, travel by bullet train to Beijing, tour the city, overnight in a first-class hotel, visit the Great Wall the next day, then rejoin the ship.

We arrive in the early hours of the morning to the eerily silent cruise-ship terminal in the port of Tianjin.

 

Steeling ourselves for the fact that this is a group tour (and everyone knows how much we love a group excursion – not!), we meet the tour guide shore-side then board a surprisingly well-appointed bus that leaves precisely on time and transports us to the Tianjin train station. It is a huge facility. Since we have a bit of time before we have to board our train, we take a walk around the terminal. It’s a peculiar feeling to be examined so closely by so many sets of eyes, as if they have never seen a people from the West, and it turns out that many of them in the station that day had seen very few.

 

We finally board the train for the 35-minute ride to North Beijing station at a speed that reaches 297 km/hour – we know this since the speed at which the train is travelling flashes across the screen in the front of the car. If we had taken a bus a many of the other cruise-ship passengers did, it would have taken upwards of two hours to get there. We arrive in Beijing. Despite the expectation that we will suffer from the smog, we marvel at the clear sky and sunshine. Our guide explains to us that it rained heavily the night before and the ever-present pollution is now spattered on every car, window and leaf. We notice. Then we are off to visit the Forbidden City.

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It’s hard to miss the evidence of the previous evening’s smog-rain!

The largest imperial palace in the world, The Forbidden City is truly the heart of Beijing. It was constructed in the fifteenth century through the efforts of over 1 million workers over a period of 20 years during the Ming Dynasty and was the imperial home of 24 Emperors of China for over 400 years. It comprises some 980 buildings and almost 9000 rooms! Forbidden to the common Chinese for centuries, it ceased being the seat of Chinese power in 1912 with the abdication of the last emperor of China. (Have you seen the film The Last Emperor? It was filmed here.) Of course, now it is known as the Palace Museum, because that’s what it is. According to our guide, it’s not very busy today. We beg to differ.

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Entering the outer courtyard of The Forbidden City

We spend time getting to the heart of the city through a series of courtyards and are mildly disappointed that you can’t actually go into the buildings. Even the throne room must be viewed from afar. But the architecture! Amazing. Tiananmen Square is next on the agenda.

The square itself seems smaller than it looks on television news reports. We are all old enough to be remembering the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, odd since the word Tiananmen is the name of the gate at the north end of the square that means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The two of us break off from our tour group (nothing new in that!) and walk the entire square taking in the buildings and monuments: The Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, he National Museum of China, and of course, the mausoleum where Mao’s body still lies in state (we didn’t get inside). But we also see beautiful gardens and more security cameras than we have ever seen in our lives – even in Monaco! It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition of the political and the aesthetic.

 

We notice that one thing is missing: city noise. According to our guide, sirens and other loud nose is forbidden in the area surrounding the square. It is oddly peaceful.

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Extraordinary gardens around the square.

It has now been a long day and we check into our room at the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. What an extraordinary property! We aren’t sure what we expected, but a five-star hotel smack in the middle of a very upscale, leafy neighbourhood of high-end shopping was not it.

The hotel has spared no detail in its amenities or décor. We choose the Asian restaurant (why would we choose North American while in Asia?) and are delighted with the ambience, the food and the service – the Chinese servers really seem to care. And even their halting English is a lot better than our Chinese, for which we are truly grateful.

 

We have only one night at this wonderful, surprising hotel and would like to spend longer enjoying a night cap in the beautiful bar, but tomorrow we are visiting The Great Wall and have to be up early. So, good night from Beijing.

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Live! From Beijing

It seems to us that if everyone in the world just had the chance to visit one another’s countries, we would all understand one simple fact: we are all more alike than we are different. That has certainly been the case in China ( and in the past in Turkey, Chile etc.)

The more we see in this astonishing country, the more we wish our respective leaders could look into the eyes of the children and others on the streets and see the smiles…and smile back. We’ve been here in China through a long weekend where folks from the countryside flock to the cities to see their own tourist attractions, and these are people who have seen few Westerners. We have provided endless amusement, and have been asked on numerous occasions to pose with the kids and the older family members for selfies! We always agree to their delight.

In the past few days we’ve strolled Tiannamen Square, explored The Forbidden City, and climbed the Great Wall which was made even more outstanding as a result of our Silversea overland experience. We had the good fortune to have a tour guide who took us to the northern entrance to the Great Wall area and we climbed the wall in almost utter seclusion, far from the crowds we could see in the distance. Oh, and overnight in Beijing? The Four Seasons was beyond divine.

We are now on our way to Japan but will forever be grateful we visited surprising China.

Travel Planning: Asia in our sights

It’s mid-April and here in the northern hemisphere the calendar says it’s spring. One look out our windows here in Toronto, however, tells a whole different story. We’ve been in the grips of a late-season ice storm for the past few days and it could not look more like winter out there. What better time to be thinking of Hong Kong and its current 25° C temperatures!

We’ve been actively planning this Asia trip for some time. It all began some time last year when, despite Asia having been on our travel bucket list for some time, we mused that perhaps we didn’t really need that 15-hour flight. When our son got wind of our thoughts on the subject he implored us not to give up the idea. In his view we HAD to visit Hong Kong and Tokyo at least. He had performed in both cities on various tours with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo a few years ago and told us that we’d love both experiences. So, we decided to take his advice and plan a trip that would include both.

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It was just the two of us and Kevin, our guide, in his Mercedes when we toured Ireland a few years ago. Here is our transportation parked out front of Ashford Castle. 

We looked at land-tour options and those included a number of regional flights in China. We wondered if we really wanted to spend that much time in airports where we didn’t speak the language, and worse, couldn’t even read the language characters. That seemed like a bit of a drag to us, although we considered a Kensington private, guided tour, since we had used them before in Ireland and were more than satisfied. But there were other options. We could consider transportation between cities by ship.

As long-time readers know about us, cruise ships are really just comfortable methods of transportation for us usually. Okay, we sometimes do like an island hop in the Caribbean on a six-star ship, but in recent years, our “cruises” have been selected based on their itineraries. So, we decided to check out our favourite cruise lines to see what they offered in Asia.

We explored Oceania, Regent and Cunard. We even considered Holland America, although we haven’t travelled on them in years. It turns out that the vast majority of the itineraries on offer include one but not both of the must-see cities on our list – Hong Kong and Tokyo – and truth be told, most cruise lines don’t actually seem to go to Tokyo at all. Then we hit on Silversea. (You might remember that we sailed on Silversea’s new ship the Silver Muse in the fall down the western coast of South America – in actual fact, we had booked this Asia cruise even before we left for that one!)

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We’ll be sailing aboard the 382-guest luxury cruise ship the Silver Shadow. [Photo credit: https://www.silversea.com/ships/silver-shadow.html]
Silversea was the only one we found that began in Hong Kong and ended in Tokyo. That was perfect: we could spend a few days in Hong Kong before sailing, then end with four or five days in Tokyo. So, we booked. One of the nice features of this itinerary was also that the ship spends two days in each of the important ports of call: Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka. It also offers a couple of mid-cruise land tours where you leave the ship for an overnight on shore so that you can explore places you couldn’t do in a single day. Next on the agenda – right after touching base with our long-time travel agent Angela (Maritime Travel) who booked our non-stop flights to and from our destination – was to plan how we would see the sights.

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First, we looked at the cruise line’s own offerings. We decided to book their overland trip in Beijing. When the ship docks in Tianjin (the port for Beijing) we’ll be on the fast train into the city for touring. Then we stay overnight at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beijing. The next day we head to The Great Wall then back to meet the ship. Unlike the shore excursions which, on Silversea, you book in advance but pay for when you disembark the ship, this overland trip had to be paid for in advance. Done.

As we looked at the other offerings, it occurred to us that there were choices among them that would permit us to see as much of the stops as possible. So, we booked a number of excursions. Silversea’s shore excursions, in our experience, appear expensive to the untrained eye, but they do have fewer people on buses and are generally good value for the money. That took care of planning for Shanghai, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto. That left us with our book-ends: Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Naturally we looked to Tours-by-Locals, our go-to company for private touring around the world.

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Our private guide in Hong Kong has now arranged our transportation from the airport to our hotel on Hong Kong island, will provide us with a private tour of the city and arrange for our transportation to the pier. Our Tokyo guide has arranged three days of city touring and a day of touring outside the city – then will drop us at the airport after four days there. And all of this was arranged through Tours-by-Locals’ web site where we were able to arrange all the details which are personalized for us. Our Tokyo guide has even provided us with materials to help us acclimatize to Japanese culture as well as an extensive list of recommended reading. Well, we opted to prepare for this trip not through too much reading, but via two video-based courses.

We bought two courses from The Great Courses, a site that we’ve gone to throughout the years for a wide variety of educational programming: Foundations of Eastern Civilization (Craig G. Benjamin PhD), which was 48 half-hour lectures and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (Mark J. Ravina PhD), 24 half-hour lectures. And yes, we watched every one of them.

Both professors are experts in their fields, but more important perhaps even than that is that their passion for their respective specialties is palpable in their terrific delivery. We didn’t take notes, but we feel that having done this in advance, we can more fully experience the history and culture of our Asian destinations. We’re looking forward to seeing in real life many of the places and experiences both shared with us.

Now that we’ve booked and finalized everything, and prepared our brains for new adventures, we’re just about ready to board that plane. We leave in five days. Hope you’ll come along with us!

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Getting ready…trusty Briggs & Riley carry-ons. 

What to wear on a cruise: The discerning traveler’s guide to packing & dressing well

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Yes, there are still formal nights on most cruise lines – a gown and a tux will always be right.

There are two questions potential cruisers ask us about their on-board wardrobe:

  1. What should I wear?
  2. How should I pack?

It comes down to three fundamental issues: the cruise line you’re traveling on, where you’re going on the cruise (and of course the time of year goes along with this), and how much luggage you plan to take. Of course, underlying all of this is the discerning travel assumption that you want to dress well: dressing well meaning that you are comfortable, appropriate for your destination, and looking good. Let’s begin with cruise lines.

Cruise lines have dress codes. These dress codes (and their interpretations) vary widely and are largely, but not entirely, dependent upon the “category” of the cruise line you choose – and how cruise lines are categorized varies as well. For example, the cruise blog “All Things Cruise” classifies them into the following categories: contemporary (others call this group “mainstream”, upscale contemporary, premium, ultra-premium and ultra-luxury. [See their complete listing HERE.]. If we were to use their approach to categorization, we travel exclusively on ultra- premium and ultra-luxury cruise lines (Silversea, Regent and Seabourn fall into the ultra-luxury category, Oceania into ultra-premium for example) – but of course there’s also Cunard which transcends the norms because it has the usual dress codes in addition to three classes of service.

There are also those confusing dress code labels: formal, informal, casual, smart casual, country club casual and the list goes on. The cruise lines do provide descriptions even if they are occasionally a bit opaque. And don’t get us started on the extent to which the cruise lines fail to observe their own rules by not turning away inappropriately dressed cruisers from dining venues (there’s always a place to dine if you insist on wearing your baseball cap to dinner – just not in the dining room).

We have noticed that although over the years dress codes have generally become more informal, on some of the cruise lines you can expect people to dress well all the time. In fact, we recently read of cruisers new to Silversea who felt decidedly out of place in their “casual” wear even on casual evenings. Casual to the average Silversea cruiser is a step or two up from the norm. You won’t find T-shirts or ball caps on Silversea casual nights – although it can happen and these are the guests who tend to feel very out of place (and they do get the stink-eye from many fellow guests!).

Coco Chanel once said that being well-dressed is a “beautiful form of politeness” and that suits our personal approach to life. We have our own interpretation of the dress codes, and it has never made us feel the least bit out of place. Our general mantra is: dress up a bit. On a casual evening, go smart casual. On informal evenings, go cocktail. On formal – well, go all out. So, here’s how we do it and some of the travel-friendly clothing brands we love (strictly our own unbiased opinions – we get no freebies from anyone).

First, let’s consider the difference between what we might wear on a Caribbean cruise where every day is in a casual, tropical port, and a Mediterranean cruise where you might well be in a big city every day. For tropical weather, you need casual tropical clothes: the Caribbean is casual and laid-back, but the evening on your cruise ship might be more dressed up.

In European cities, you need to be mindful of the weather at the time of year you cruise, and be prepared to walk long distances among people who are generally dressed for their usual work day whatever that might entail. In some senses, dressing simply amounts to common sense. Be respectful of your surroundings and the people who live there; be respectful of yourself by dressing in a thoughtful and comfortable way. And no big sneakers and fanny packs! But that’s just us. But then, how do you pack for all of these eventualities. [Art in Sienna, Italy on excursion and Patty on board a Regent ship in Europe a few years back…]

For us, that means selecting types of clothing and brands that travel especially well, and taking pieces that can do double duty. Here are some examples from our recent trip to South America…

Art took three or four Columbia shirts with him and an Orvis (below – top right shirt). Believe it or not, each of these shirts is easily hand-washable and over-night dry-able. They look like real clothes rather than “travel wear.” Columbia is well-priced and easily packable – and looks good!

But not to be outdone, Columbia makes some terrific choices for women as well…

But those Columbia shirts Art wears aren’t just for day-time touring. The right one with a jacket in the evening takes him to dinner on a casual night (remember, casual on a Silversea ship is this kind of dressing)…

In addition to Columbia, Art likes Tilley shirts. They’re more expensive than Columbia, but they last for years…

…and unless we’re headed to the Caribbean or the South Pacific, we don’t leave home without a packable jacket — Cole Haan is a favourite…

…then there are the evenings. Finding packable evening wear isn’t as challenging as it might appear. There are several approaches. First, Art has a wonderful new tuxedo which, since it’s Italian wool, actually packs well. But how can he make a tux do double duty? The wonderful sales associate at “Tom’s Place” in Toronto where he bought the new tux last fall, suggested that this shawl-collared jacket would be terrific as a dinner jacket on a more informal night. So, that’s what it became…

 

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dinner jacket

But what about cocktail dresses and formal gowns? Patty has found that Joseph Ribkoff and Frank Lyman are probably the best for “packability.” And now she has added a Lisa Drader-Murphy (all Canadian designers) to her list.

…and a Lauren Ralph Lauren jersey gown never goes astray…

formal lauren gown

…with the SJP (Sara Jessica Parker) sparkly shoes, anything can look dressed up! Patty has owned a strapless Joseph Ribkoff gown for about ten years. Paired with a variety of little jackets, it looks like a completely different dress each time she wears it on a cruise.

formal ribkoff gown

Let’s finish off with a family portrait from the Queen Mary a few years back when our son joined us. Formal nights on Cunard are true formal nights. Love it!

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Now it’s time to decide what to pack for the upcoming Asian cruise!