FAR EAST – PART 2
I find big cities intimidating. Our ship sails into an unfamiliar harbour like Hong Kong’s and I wonder how the hell I’m going to find my way around. Many cruise passengers opt for the easy way out: a guided Holland America excursion. But Elva and I have gotten braver in our dotage and prefer to set out on our own. This means gathering as much information as you can in advance and, when the time comes, taking the plunge into the unknown.
Hong Kong is like Halifax on steroids, a fine natural harbour straddled on two sides by the city proper: Hong Kong Island to the south and mainland Kowloon to the north. We came off the ship early in the morning, did the wifi thing, and made our way to the money exchange. Hong Kong dollars in hand and hoping for a friendly face, we approached the tourist information desk. Thankfully, the guide’s English was excellent, and she explained how to get to all the places we wanted to see using public transit. She couldn’t have been more helpful. Such a contrast from what we’d experienced in Thailand and Vietnam.
We took a shuttle to the nearest subway station, bought tickets and made our way across the harbour to Hong Kong Island. A bus took us to the top of Victoria Peak where we enjoyed spectacular views of the city below. We even FaceTimed with our son and daughter-in-law, Clément and Julia, while enjoying the view from the Skydeck. The century-old tram took us back down the mountain, and we walked to the Star Ferry terminal to cross the harbour to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade. After taking in the sights along the seawall, we made our way to popular Nathan Rd. We walked past the high-end stores in the rich part of town and made a stop at Starbucks. From there, we took the subway and shuttle back to the ship, satisfied with our day. For $45 US - including lunch, attractions and transportaion - we had ourselves a really good overview of Hong Kong. Best of all, we didn’t get lost. And we did it ourselves!
Shanghai is a city of superlatives. Home to some 23 million, it is the world’s third-largest city by population. We’d seen images of the city skyline, but it’s hard to imagine the scale of things until you’re up close.
Hong Kong, a British colony until 1999, was sheltered for 50 years from the strong Communist influence that marked life in the rest of China. Vehicles there drive on the left; many people speak English; the currency is the Hong Kong Dollar, etc. In Shanghai, things are quite different: security is much tighter; traffic runs on the right; very few residents speak English; and social media websites like FaceBook are blocked. (On the bright side, this means the Chinese are spared from Trump’s twisted tweets!)
Shanghai is one of the cleanest, most orderly cities we’ve ever visited. There’s a sense of space on sidewalks and public spaces. The subway system, while somewhat intimidating with its fourteen lines, is clean, cheap, efficient, and easy to use. In the two days we spent there, we took in as much as we could. We rode the Maglev (magnetic levitation) Train to the airport and back, hitting a top speed of 301 kph.
We took the world’s fastest elevator (top speed 75 kph) on a 55-second ride to the 118th floor of the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building, where we enjoyed spectacular views of the city from a height of 546 metres. One of the photos shows the skyscraper known as the “bottle opener” (for obvious reasons) far below.
We strolled the Nanjing Rd. pedestrian mall, visited People’s Park, and took in the magnificent Shanghai Museum, home of impressive collections of jade, coinage, porcelain, furniture, and paintings. We learned that the Chinese civilization is one of the world’s oldest. Judging by what we saw in Shanghai it’s going to be around for a while yet.
We had to make do with one too-short day in South Korea, barely enough time to make our way on the train from the port city of Incheon to the capital city of Seoul. Over 90 million South Koreans occupy a country smaller than the combined area of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The area between the port city of Incheon and Seoul is one continuous urban zone. In fact, half the country’s population lives in greater Seoul.
We got off the train at the Geongbok Palace stop and wandered around the huge complex before strolling along a broad boulevard, taking a detour along a stream that runs through the centre of the city. It was a bone-chilling -2 degrees C. We spent most of our three hours exploring the very modern city centre before making our way to Seoul Station and the trip back to the ship.
South Korea is home to some of the world’s largest conglomerates, Hyundai, LG, and Samsung being the best known. But the country is going through a difficult period. The day we were there, North Korea fired off four ballistic missiles; the unpredictable and trigger-happy neighbour, Kim Jong-un, flexing his muscles again. The country’s president is on the verge of being impeached, the CEO of Samsung has been charged with corruption, and relations are not good with China, South Korea’s principle trading partner. People are understandably anxious and concerned about the future, such a shame considering how far they’ve come since World War II and the Korean conflict.
We crossed the Yellow Sea again, headed for the gateway port to China’s capital city, Beijing. There’s no easy way to experience the major attractions found in and around Beijing. Two one-day Holland America tours would have cost $940 US; an overnight tour to Beijing would have set us back $1,700 US!
Elva and I decided to get to the Great Wall on our own. From dockside, we set out by taxi bound for Yujiapu Station and the bullet train that would take us into the city. At Beijing South Station, we entered the maze that is the Beijing Metro. The plan was to go from Beijing North Station to Badaling Station, within walking distance of the Great Wall. Guess what? Beijing North Station was closed! With no Plan B, we had to ask people who didn’t speak English how to get to the Great Wall.
Long story short, we ended up in a small van with five Chinese people, hoping the driver wasn’t going to rip us off or rob us blind. Then, our luck took a turn for the better. Sitting next to us in the van was a couple from Hong Kong, Frank and Sarah, fellow Holland Americans. Their Mandarin was a hell of a lot better than ours, so we tagged along. The Great Wall is truly a wonder to behold; everything I’d imagined, and more. What an incredible experience! It took us seven hours to get there, but it was worth it. The weather was perfect and the crowds were light. We walked for a full two hours, all of it on steep grades.
We’d decided to spend the night in Beijing rather than return to the ship. Up bright and early the next morning, we arrived at the gate just as the site was opening and managed to beat the worst of the crowds. Words cannot do justice to the Forbidden City (or to the hordes of people who visit the place). It’s huge, and is easily the most impressive walled city we’ve seen in all our travels. Successive Chinese emperors called this fortified place home for more than four centuries, and it’s lovingly cared for and preserved. We’d hoped to visit Mao’s Mausoleum, just across Tiananmen Square, but security was just too tight. The People’s Congress was in session while we were in Beijing, there were soldiers everywhere, and everyone was on high alert.
Beijing is an impressive city. Clear skies and crisp spring air held the smog at bay for the two days we spent there; not even a hint of haze. At 22 million souls, it’s about as big as Shanghai. The two-hour train trip from the cruise port to the city and back was an eye-opener. The pace of development and urbanization is staggering. China’s approach to planning is the exact opposite of ours. In our country, infrastructure follows population growth. In China, it’s the reverse. Whole cities are built before people occupy them: highways, arrow-straight boulevards, high-speed railway lines, schools, shopping malls, office towers, and forests of 20-30-story apartment complexes. Completed communities lie empty, just waiting.
Then, it was back across the Yellow Sea again, bound for Japan and the port city of Nagasaki, known in recent history as the target of the second atomic bomb, the one that finally brought an end to World War II. On August 9, 1945, a B29 bomber named Bockscar dropped a plutonium warhead that exploded just above the port city, killing 75,000 people instantly and injuring 72,000, many of whom died soon after from burns and the horrible effects of radiation sickness. An area of 6.7 square kilometres was completely levelled. The International Peace Park features many impressive sculptures and statues commemorating the event, and is a lovely place to visit. We’d decided to spend time there instead of visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum that contains images and relics of the event.
Nagasaki is a small city by Japanese standards, only 500,000. It’s clean and orderly, the people are polite, and you get a sense that they enjoy having visitors, quite a contrast from Beijing. We visited a shrine commemorating the martyrdom of 26 Catholics, all put to death in 1597 because of their religious beliefs, and strolled through beautiful Glover Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Next stop in Japan was Kagoshima. Never heard of it? Neither had we. But, we enjoyed our day there and there was lots to see. We started by taking the ferry to the island of Sakurajima, one of the largest active volcanoes on earth, and rode the island-view tour bus. Back in the city, we took the tram to Sengan-en, the former estate of a rich Japanese merchant family, featuring beautiful gardens and views of the Sakurajima volcano across Kinko Bay.
Yokohama is the port city closest to Japan’s capital. In fact, it’s now considered part of greater Tokyo, the world’s most populous city at 32 million or so! Imagine almost the whole population of Canada stuffed into one metropolitan area. And speaking of stuffed, we sometimes felt like taking the subway and train into the city centre. But, unlike the Chinese who have no problem pushing one another to make room, the Japanese are by nature too polite.
With only one day to visit, we focused on the top two attractions in Tokyo: the Imperial Palace Gardens and the Senso-ji Temple. Both were well worth a visit. We also went to Shibuya Crossing and climbed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office for a nice view of the skyline. We found the people of Tokyo to be very polite and helpful; they don’t rush and they don’t push. On the subways, no talking on the phone is allowed! Except for Shibuya Crossing where five streets meet, we didn’t find the place as crowded as we’d expected.