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Wanderings

Sort of a travel blog

Impressions of places I've visited. Not as funny as Bill Bryson. Not as informative as Simon Calder. Not too much detail.

East Canada 2018

Uncategorised Posted on Wed, October 07, 2020 10:10:47

Introduction

When I was very – very – young, my family emigrated to Canada. Dad lived in Toronto for a time, then moved to Hamilton and mum and I came out to join him. Things didn’t work out for various reasons, and after a couple of years we were back in Glasgow. Later he got a job in Grangemouth, and we lived there until I went off to university.

It had always been in my mind to visit this part of Canada. My wife and I had travelled over the Rockies, and visited Vancouver and Vancouver Island, but I wanted to see Toronto and Hamilton, and that whole area.

My dad passed away in 2017, shortly after his 96th birthday. Having spoken to him over the years about his life there, and as a sort of tribute to him, we decided to do that Canadian trip. Our only regret was that we couldn’t discuss it with him afterwards.

Toronto

We flew from Edinburgh to Toronto’s Pearson airport. There we had an amazingly long drive from the plane to the terminal building, but then an easy transfer to the shuttle train into Union Station – one of those magnificent stations that the North Americans do so well. (It’s also being expanded and developed.)

The walk to our hotel was a little tricky, because we went the wrong way initially – my fault (probably) – but we got there without too much hassle. The place was lovely, and the room just fine. We were staying for four nights.

Our hotel was close to the University area, and a couple blocks away from Yonge Street, the longest street in Canada, which runs from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron. Originally it was a trading route: from Lake Ontario you can get to the Atlantic and hence Europe to sell your furs. 

 First activity was exploring the area. We were very central, with lots of student stuff nearby. There were restaurants, bars and street food places – a great buzz about the place.

The morning after an early night we found a nearby place for breakfast – a typical big North American breakfast that lasted all day. In fact, there were two different places close to each other and we alternated, depending on how busy they were.

The hop-on hop-off bus tour, of course, was our priority. This was doubly fascinating. We saw the city, of course, including the massive Chinatown, but also the area that used to be Toronto’s version of Greenwich Village, where Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Gordon Lightfoot had all honed their talents.

A view from the bus – the CN Tower

We explored the St Lawrence Market, where I could happily shop every day, and the Distillery District, where I could happily drink every day.

There is also an underground shopping centre – ideal in the winter. The only problem is that when you emerge at street level you’re totally disorientated.

The waterfront, on Lake Ontario, is beautiful – and it’s got a place with a collection of old steam engines and rolling stock. And a brewery. As we sat with a beer looking at the map, the waitress asked if we needed help. We’ve seen this a lot in Canada; people are friendly and helpful.

Old trains!

Down there, by the marinas, there was a café selling Beavertails. These are pastries that look like… well, beaver tails. With a choice of fillings and toppings, including chocolate sauce, banana and smarties.

One day was a boat trip out amongst the islands, where the houses are ultra-expensive and the waiting list – which costs a lot to just stay on – is literally a lifetime. We got our picture looking back at Toronto – you know the one that everyone has.

In the queue for that boat we recognised a Scottish voice and got chatting. He was in Rotary and knew one of our friends from Nairn. We also spoke to a local and told him I’d once lived in Hamilton. ‘Ah – Steeltown,’ he said. Not the most desirable location, it seems – Mississauga, between Hamilton and Toronto, is a better place to stay.

View from the islands

We wanted to go up the CN Tower, of course. We had been told that the clever way to do this is book lunch there. It’s quite expensive but covers the entry charge. And the restaurant revolves!

Up we went, and spent some time walking round and taking photographs until our table was ready. We stood on the glass floor looking down.

We were right at the outside. Overcome by the view we ordered a bottle of wine – low alcohol wine is quite a thing here (10%) and is probably sensible at lunchtime.

As we ate and drank, and the restaurant revolved, we took dozens of photographs. We saw the whole city, including the little airport just offshore. The main impression was how flat it is for miles and miles. There were the Lawrentian Mountains to the north, but looking west it seemed like it was flat all the way to the Rockies.

A view from the restaurant in the CN Tower, looking west.

Nearby was the Blue Jays stadium where they were preparing for an Ed Sheerin concert, which had got the locals excited. I was more excited by the Toronto Book Festival – which we were going to miss. I had a dream that one day I’d be invited to speak there.

Our final impression of Toronto was that it was multi-cultural, laid-back, and lovely.

Niagara

We picked up the hire car, with sat-nav, and negotiated our way onto the Gardiner Expressway. Once on it, and it mutated into Queen Elizabeth Way, the driving was easy.

We bypassed Hamilton, on a lake-side causeway, but we could see the steelworks, where my dad had worked all those years ago. It looked smoky and gloomy, I have to say, contrasting with the bright sunshine all around.

Nearing Niagara we ran into heavy traffic. This was the end of a US holiday – Labor Day – and they were all heading home. There was gridlock on the approach to the bridge that led to the US. (This is no longer an open border.)

We got to our hotel though. On the way to our room we passed other rooms being cleaned, and we could see the Falls. Our room had the full Falls view that we’d requested. First thing we did was to turn the sofa round so that we could look at that view. (There are many hotels around. One or two say they are ‘Falls view hotels’. In other words, from the corner of one or two rooms you might glimpse the Falls.)

Niagara!

We sat for a while, captivated by the view, and then headed out for something to eat and a closer look. We walked all the way up to the Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian one). I had my picture taken sitting with my back to the railings and the American Falls. This matched the one taken when I’d been here last – some sixty-four years before. I put the two pictures, side by side, on FaceBook, with the intended punchline that the Falls hadn’t changed but I had every so slightly. But that wasn’t true; the American Falls had suffered a major rockfall in 1955, after my first picture was taken, and the difference is obvious. (It is expected that the American Falls will continue to degenerate over hundreds of years until it becomes a series of rapids.)

There is a huge funfair here, but it’s not really intrusive from the Canadian side.

That evening we did the sunset Falls boat trip, with fireworks. On board the Hornblower we chatted to a couple from Edmonton. This was their first visit here. We told them we were finishing our trip with a cruise, and they said they’d been planning for years to do that trip with another couple, but the husband had died so that wasn’t going to happen now. Do it while you can, people.

On the subject of the Falls boat trips, we had been confused and a little worried about the difference between the Hornblower (from the Canadian side) and the Maid of the Mist (from the US side). It turns out that they are identical, which is just as well because you don’t really have a choice of which to take these days.

The experience was unforgettable, riding right up close to where that water thundered down, spray everywhere, the crowd on the boat shrieking. It was all familiar from photographs and videos – not least one of the Superman films – but different in real life. We didn’t know about that huge hydro station built into the bank.

Up close and personal

The next day we did the ride in daylight, and also the Behind the Falls tour, just to fully get the power of that awesome display. Two thousand four hundred cubic metres of water a second. Not the tallest waterfall in the world, but the biggest by volume. And loud!

I’d like to claim that I had residual memories of being here, but I haven’t.

My wife had met a Canadian couple on a train journey a few months before, and spoken to them about the planned trip. ‘You simply must visit Niagara-on-the-Lake.’

So we followed the course of the Niagara River to that town. On the way we stopped to take a journey on the Whirlpool Aero car, where the river takes a sharp right-turn and has carved out this churning circular area. Over thousands of years the Falls have retreated back up to where they are now, and you can understand the erosion: the bank with its steep sides.

Niagara-on-the-lake is simply a gorgeous place. We spoke to the woman in Tourist Information and noted her Scottish accent; she was from Tayport, just across the Tay from us. ‘What attracted you here?’ I joked, and then got the sad story of her marriage, emigration, and divorce. Ah well. For the rest of the time we just walked around, down to the shore, looking at the lake. I remembered my mother saying how we’d once tried to go for a swim on a very hot day and the lake was absolutely freezing cold!

Niagara-on-the-lake

On the way back to our hotel, we popped into a winery for a tasting. Well, you have to.

The border with the US runs down the middle of the Niagara river (and out into the lake). All the way down the river we kept getting messages ‘welcome to the US’ then ‘welcome to Canada’ and ‘welcome to the US’ and so on.

We had a deadline to get back to Toronto with the hire car, but we wanted to drive into Hamilton. This we did. I have no idea where my parents’ house had been, but I was struck how the houses came right down to the huge steel works, with the fumes and pollution. We paused at the waterfront, which was lovely.

Hamilton – the return after sixty-four years

Then it was back to Toronto, and a nightmare. The traffic ground to a halt, and the sat-nav packed in. We arrived a few minutes late, checked in the car – the woman said it was fine, no worries – and made our way to Union Station. It was only the following month that we found that Avis had charged us a half-day’s rental for returning the car late. How nice of them.

Montreal

We’d originally thought of driving to Montreal, but then decided the train was a better bet so that’s what we did.

The train was very comfortable, roomy and relaxing, even though the scenery wasn’t the most amazing. On the way the announcements changed from English-then-French to French-then-English then French.

We collected our luggage, found the Metro station, and routed ourselves to the Longeuil area south of the river where our hotel was. Some of the Metro stations are old, without escalators. Not easy! But the hotel was beside the destination station. The room was fairly basic, but clean and comfortable.

We reversed our journey into the city centre to find food and drink. Drink in bars and restaurants was quite pricy, but a bottle-shop was settling local beers incredibly cheaply. I bought all we could carry.

Unsurprisingly we had the hop-on hop-off bus tour the next day. Equally unsurprisingly, the highlight was the repeated references to Leonard Cohen, from McGill University to the murals of him, and a sighting of the statue of the Madonna by the harbour (‘And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbour’ from Suzanne, © Leonard Cohen).

Leonard Cohen

They too have an underground shopping centre, and there are small parks with bars and entertainers.

Montreal – ‘Mount Royal’ – is undoubtedly French, but despite our fears people speak English. Signs are in French, which I can read, but health and safety notices are also in English. One of my wife’s cousins was once married to a French-Canadian, and at the wedding I asked a group of her friends if the French could understand their French. They said it was a bit like American English and UK English. I also noted that some of the older relatives at that wedding spoke very little English.

We walked up the actual Mount Royal bit. We had beers in an outside open area near the harbour, with a band playing.

It’s a very cosmopolitan city with its China-town and its gay quarter. Everyone is laid-back – very Canadian – and the city is beautiful. Most of the city is on an island, with the St Lawrence River to the south and a narrower river to the north. These cities on the St Lawrence were the first to be founded, allowing access to the hunting grounds and trading routes.

Montreal and the St Lawrence River

The Cruise

For the final part of the trip we’d booked a Holland-America cruise from Montreal to Boston. It was a relatively small ship; bigger ones have to start at Quebec because of a low bridge at Montreal on the way out.

There was the usual getting on board routine, including the sail-away cocktails on deck. As we sailed away we settled into cruising life and watched the gorgeous sunset.

The St Lawrence River is relatively narrow all the way to Quebec. Then it widens.

Quebec

Quebec – pronounced with a hard K at the start rather than the Qu sound – was first stop, and a tour of the city with time for a walk around at the end of the day.

Where Montreal was French, Quebec is France. From the names of all the streets and places to the language – it’s like you’re in France.

We went up to the iconic Frontenac hotel which dominates the city and caught a glimpse of luxury living. 

That’s what I call a hotel

Nearby is the big field that is the Heights of Abraham. I knew my history; brave Scottish – and English – soldiers storming the Heights to conquer the place for queen and country. The Quebecois tell it rather differently; skulduggery and cheating by unwanted invaders. (Too many people in England are nowadays referring to the glory days of the British Empire and wishing we could get back to those days. To them I say a) we shouldn’t really, and b) how?)

The Heights of Abraham became a golf course – 14 holes – for  time, until somebody pointed out that this really was inappropriate.

After the tour we walked around, just drinking in the atmosphere, then back to the ship.

Prince Edward Island

The next day was a relaxing sea day, and the St Lawrence widened until we couldn’t see either side, although there were several big and small islands around, and boats. Sea days on cruises are relaxing; time to use the gym and/or the pool, walk round the deck, eat food. Then eat more food, and perhaps drink. Life pauses.

The next stop was Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, and a tour of the island.

It’s tempting to think that people who live on islands far away from anywhere – wherever that is – feel and act isolated, but it’s not true. It’s not true of Orcadians, it’s not true of folk on Jura, and it’s not true here. They’re nice and funny – (best joke: ‘Tim Horton is merging with Starbuck’s and Second Cup to form a new coffee chain called Timbucktoo’. Oh, please yourselves.) and keen to show off their island.

This place was unspoilt, with big farmhouses almost everywhere and strange geology – red sandstone. It’s also home to Anne of Green Gables, where they have a farmhouse similar to the one where the author would have lived. You can try on a red pigtail wig and sit in a Surrey. I didn’t, but my wife did and I’ve sworn never to share the photographs.

Shoreline on PEI

To get to PEI (as everyone calls it) there is a very long bridge and a ferry. The bridge charges, the ferry doesn’t.

After the tour we wandered round the tiny main town and then got back on the ship for dinner. (This is one of the main – and valid – criticisms of cruising; relatively little money is spent in the towns the ships visit, because people get back on board for all their food, and usually all their drink too.) 

Cape Breton Island

OK, so Quebec is France. Nova Scotia is Scotland. There’s a huge fiddle on the quayside at Sydney, and a piper standing near it. My wife wore her Runrig T-shirt (from their farewell concert of the month before) because this is where Bruce Guthro comes from.

That’s what I call a fiddle

There is a huge warehouse thing on the quay too, and inside was a craft fare. One of the stalls had an author selling her books – Beatrice MacNeil. I quickly Googled her and found out that she is a famous local author – she’s been at the Toronto Book Festival. I approached her and told her I was an author too and lived in Dundee.

 ‘Ah, you’ll know AL Kennedy then.’

Not quite. AL Kennedy had written a complimentary quote for the cover of Beatrice’s novel, and appeared with her at said book festival.

We chatted to some of the other stallholders. Many divided their time between here and Toronto.

We didn’t take a trip here, but just walked round the town. The record store had Bruce Guthro CDs for sale.

Halifax

This was our most important stop (though I had tried to find a cruise that visited Newfoundland, but nothing worked).

Halifax was, in the days when immigrants mainly arrived by ship, the gateway to Canada. They were processed at Pier 21. Some were sent back to the ship to go home, while others went out the other side of the building and onto a train bound for Toronto.

In November 1951 one of these people was my dad. He’d sailed from Liverpool via Le Havre to Halifax. He had cousins already living in Toronto, and with his skills he easily found work. After a time he moved to Hamilton, and my mum came out with me.

My wife had been in touch with the people at Pier 21, the Canadian Museum of Immigration, and they found his details. When we got there they handed us an envelope with a copy of the sheet of paper that registered his arrival, along with other information about the ships that came here, and the life on board those ships, all crammed with hopeful immigrants.

It was all quite emotional and thought-provoking.

Where it all began for so many immigrants

We explored the museum at Pier 21, and also the ship museum nearby. Old London buses took us on the hop-on hop-off tour of the city, past the graveyard where many of the victims of the Titanic are buried (taking cruise ship passengers to see that is considered hugely ironic).

We were told about the Halifax Explosion of 1917. There was a low-speed collision in the narrows off Halifax that started a fire on one of the ships involved. Hundreds of people came down to watch this spectacle, and then the ship – which had been packed with high explosives, en route to France – blew up. The shock wave obliterated large parts of the town, and killed around two thousand people, including those who had come to watch, snapped trees, and caused a tsunami that grounded ships. It was the largest man-made explosion ever, at that time.

Back on board our ship, we watched Halifax recede, and thought about my dad arriving there all those years ago, one of thousands of immigrants hoping for a better life than post-war Britain. (As far as I can gather, we returned to Glasgow because of the post-war NHS which could deal with my and my mother’s health problems.)

Bar Harbor, Maine USA

We’d been in Bar Harbor before, and all we wanted to do was walk round and eat some lobster.

We’ve been on that four-master

We were officially arriving in the US. Border guards came aboard and checked all our documentation. Canadians were easily treated, but some others were questioned: why are you here? Why did you choose this holiday? One guy had, for some reason, not brought his passport; he couldn’t go ashore.

We were given our landing card and told to surrender it when we left Boston. There were no smiles, no welcomes.

Once ashore from the tender, we did a big circuit of the town, past big houses and bigger houses, until we reached the top of the town and had our lobster roll with local beers. It was a beautiful day, and it’s a beautiful part of the world. The people are friendly – almost Canadian-grade friendly, but not quite.

Boston

We arrived early in the morning at Boston and had to get off the ship; it was heading back the way we’d come, and many passengers were returning with it.

Our flight wasn’t until late afternoon, so we had a lot of time to kill, and it seemed the only way to do it was to take the bus tour of the city. We’d been here before too, and heard the history, but we went with it.

In our previous visit we’d gone to a local Rotary meeting, and chatted to a couple of people from Germany who were working at MIT.

‘Are you enjoying your visit?’

‘Yes,’ we said.

‘And you have heard all about the history.’

‘Yes.’

And there was a laugh. ‘History! Pah! Three hundred years. That’s not history. We are European – we have real history!’

It is a lovely city, though.

Then it was the airport and home.

Final impressions

We love Canada, and it’s sobering to reflect that I might have grown up there. When I was a teenager my dad had another offer to move there but declined. (My younger sister is furious that she isn’t Canadian.)

Canadians are lovely people. We’ve explored parts of the west and the east, though I still would like to see Newfoundland and more of the north-east – those fog banks I’ve heard so much about. Maybe one day.

As I said earlier, I’d spoken to my dad a lot over the years about his life in Canada. Our only regret is that we didn’t do this trip sooner; it would have been so good to have told him about it all when we got home.



New Zealand 2020 Part 2 – The South Island

Uncategorised Posted on Tue, September 22, 2020 09:14:12

Nelson

Once we’d got rid of the hire car, we experienced the airport-style luggage check-in, and got on board the ferry.

We go to Jura every year, so I always compare ferries abroad with CalMac. My usual joke is that only CalMac serves a mac-and-cheese. But the Islander did too! No Islay ales though.

The ferry was packed. We eased out past the QE2 and another cruise ship, and made our way through the islands, and the short hop over Cook Strait across to the Sound and the islands at the north of the South island. It was to all intents and purposes a mini cruise: gorgeous scenery, albeit cold outside. There was a southerly wind, and we had to keep remembering that these winds are cold in the southern hemisphere; north winds are the warm ones.

Leaving Wellington

On landing, I hurtled off to be first in the queue to get the new hire car, which was identical to the old one and counted as part of the same hire, so the paperwork was minimal. Luggage collected from the carousel, and sat-nav set, and we were off over a windy road to our absolutely superb B&B in Nelson.

We checked in and went for a long walk round the beautiful town and its marina, and then burgers and beers. Everything was quiet and clean.

Sunday in Nelson.

The next day was the Abel Tasman national park. There are various trips available. A young couple at our B&B were doing kayaking and a walk. We had opted for the boat trip up to the very tip, then back a little way and a walk down – around an hour or so – to a beach to wait for the pick-up.

We had a very light early breakfast in the B&B and drove up to Kaiteriteri where our boat departed from, along with several other tours. The trip up the coast was beautiful, and the commentary was entertaining and informative. What looked like dead trees were an invasive species (Nova Scotia Pines) that was being deliberately killed off. They were also getting rid of some non-indigenous wildlife that had been introduced in a well-meaning but not-thought-through manner (for example stoats to get rid of rabbits, but which instead lived off bird eggs which were easier to catch).

At the very top we had to wait while a very laid-back family made their way on board, went back to get their luggage and a child, and then generally faffed around. We got off at Tonga Quarry and walked through the edge of the rainforest – up and down, on a very rough track that was sometimes very steep – to Medland Bay to wait for our boat. (Once again I turned into a lobster). On the walk were warning signs of what to do in the event of a tsunami – go uphill.

Near the end of our Abel Tasman walk.

The boats here drove straight up the sand and unfolded a gangway out in front. It was fascinating to watch.

We had fish and chips at Kaiteriteri, and went back to our B&B, feeling we’d had a bit of a wild outdoors adventure.

Blenheim and Christchurch

The journey back over those windy roads to Blenheim, the centre of Marlborough wine country, didn’t take long. We got checked into our lodge, and had a brief stroll round the complex. Most of the lodges here were actually owned by people, and we met one older couple from Kansas and who here rather than the more usual Florida. We talked Scotland and possible independence, but didn’t mention Trump.

At Nelson, we’d been told about the Omaka Aviation Heritage centre, so we went there. The displays – covering the first and second world wars – had been designed by Peter Jackson, and had the same feel as the Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa in Wellington. I found it fascinating, particularly an early flying boat that looked just like an actual boat with wings stuck on. Some of the exhibits were particularly compelling, including one where Baron von Richtofen lay dying beside his crash-landed plane, and UK and French soldiers were cutting souvenirs from the plane rather than trying to save his life.

The Red Baron meets his end.

That evening we went to the local Rotary for a lovely dinner and conversations – one of the joys of being a Rotarian is that you can do this sort of thing, and mingle with locals. Many were ex-pats, of course. One still had his Dundee accent after 22 years here; it turned out he used to live a couple of hundred yards along from us in Broughty Ferry, and knew the man who used to own our house. Small world.

Kiwi on my right, ex-pat Dundonian on my left.

Next day was our bicycle wine-tasting tour. We were picked up and driven a few kilometres along the road to the starting point, where we found one of the Rotarians from the evening before working for the company. We were briefed, and met our group: us, a young couple from London, and a guy originally from Dumfries and Galloway but had lived in Oz for years, and was now touring around. He was a mining engineer to trade, working north of Perth, but now ran a company marketing e-cigarettes. He could live out of any hotel room in the world, so long as he had Wi-Fi or a good 4G signal. What a lifestyle!

The whole countryside around there is flat, and most of the cycling was off-road, so it was fairly relaxing. The wineries were all welcoming, and the explanations good. Tastings were very small, but there were a hell of a lot of them. Our guide Hamish was very knowledgeable too – an ex-pat Scot, as you probably guessed.

The big surprise was how preferences have changed. Riesling, the height of sophistication in the 70s and never touched again, is back and it’s brilliant. There is a variety of wine called Pinot Gris. And Pinot Noir Rose is great too! There is a lot of relatively low alcohol wines – nine or ten per cent – which are favoured for lunchtime drinking (we’d seen that in Canada too). We eventually bought a bottle (of Rose).

One of several wine-tasting stops. We bought a bottle here.

Next day was across and down the coast to Kaikura. The Rotarians had told us the journey would be slow because of all the repairs needed after the earthquake. What earthquake, we asked.

Well, in 2016 there was a huge earthquake centred on the Kaikura peninsula. Tracts of land shifted upwards, and the whole of South island moved slightly north. The peninsula’s road and rail links were severed. ‘Only’ two people were killed, though, and neither of them were Brits, which is why it never figured much on the UK news – we had other things bothering us at the time, including all those celebrities dying.

The railway is now fine, but there are still massive roadworks. The government had hastily built temporary roads, but had cut across sacred Maori lands ay opne bit, and there was a bit of unrest about that.

We explored the town and the pub grub, but we were really there for the whale-watching tour. My wife had suggested – six months before we travelled – that we should get this tour booked. I was scathing. It turned out we struggled to get a booking! We picked an available time, and asked to be put on standby for the time we really wanted. Phew!

The trip was fantastic. A really fast boat out to sea, which was a bit stomach-churning – one of those ‘focus on the horizon’ journeys – but we were rewarded with spectacular sightings of whales. I never tire of looking at them.

Whale!

We saw seals on land too, and cruise ship passengers stumbling around.

After another night there, we drove on to reach Christchurch for the first time, and walked into town through the parks and gardens. It is an astonishingly English city, from the public schoolboys’ uniforms, to its River Avon and the punts on it, and the pubs – one with a Morris Minor pickup inside. A little tram trundles round the compact city centre.

The effects of the 2011 earthquake are still all too apparent. There were many small ones in 2010, but the big one in 2011 did the damage. The cathedral still gapes. Many sites are not yet rebuilt – new building regulations are slowing things down and there are complaints about the government’s response. 

Christchurch cathedral (present day).

One hundred and eighty-five people lost their lives in the big earthquake, almost all of them in two buildings which collapsed. There is now a legal case against the company which built one of those. There is an outdoor display of one hundred and eighty-five empty white chairs (which apparently is a common theme these days).

185 empty chairs

We had beers and fish and chips. After being caught out again with happy hour, I questioned the barman. It seems that only some beers are on the happy hour deal in pubs. Some barmen point out which ones. Some don’t, especially when they are serving an obvious tourist.

In the park, on our way back to the hotel, there was music playing: classical then rock, and fireworks. What a lovely place to live, we thought.

We’d got rid of the hire car. Tomorrow was the train.

Greymouth, the glaciers, and Queenstown

The Transalpine is reckoned to be one of the world’s most scenic railway journeys, cutting across the South Island over the alps.

One of the many splendid views from the train.

Kiwi Rail is pretty much run as a tourist industry, and has big US-style diesel engines, and at least one open-sided observation carriage where people huddle together, fight for a space at the front, and despair at the arm-spreaders who take up too much room.

Inside, the seats are very comfortable. We ate sandwiches and drank coffee from the wee cafe bar, and just enjoyed it all scrolling past. A map on the wall showed where we were, and there was an audio commentary. It was good to have a long spell without driving.

As we rolled to a halt in Greymouth, I ran off to the queue for the car hire while my wife queued for the luggage coming out of the baggage car.

The hire car place was tucked away in a corner of the station. This was officially a ‘new’ hire, so everything had to be done afresh for everybody. The queue built up behind me, and there were the usual customers who wanted to chat about their holiday and ask for restaurant recommendations. (We already had insurance for excess cover on hire cars worldwide, but were persuaded to buy extra puncture coverage – I agreed, twice, and still feel suckered.)

As we finally had the cases loaded and the sat-nav programmed (this car was identical to the previous two), we headed south. Then turned round, went back, and headed south a different way because I’d gone wrong at a junction.

The sky was dark grey, and soon the wind picked up and the rain started lashing down. 

Some of the road had been blocked with land slips the previous November, and we could see the remnants of this: speed restrictions and roadworks everywhere. The Kiwis had done an amazing job of getting the road open at all.

We stopped at the odd beauty spot and stood in the rain looking into the mist, picturing what we’d been told was a wonderful view, then back in the car.

It was a long slow drive to Fox Glacier and our accommodation. With the rain still lashing down, we drove to the pub for dinner, then back to the room for a relaxing evening.

The next day, the rain had stopped.

The recent rainstorms had closed the roads and tracks up to the glaciers. There was no access to the one at Fox Glacier at all, so we drove back to Frank Josef (which looks a bit like Aviemore) where we parked. The track was open as far as a viewpoint looking up the valley to the end wall of the glacier, but no further.

Franz Josef glacier.

We love glaciers, and we’ve seen a fair few. We could see the tongue of this glacier away in the distance, with a definite pink/brown tinge to it from the Australian bushfire ash. A sign told us that where we were standing was where the glacier reached a hundred years ago. If the world doesn’t get its act together, it’ll soon be gone altogether.

Back to Fox Glacier and a walk round Lake Matheson, famous for its mirror views. But they weren’t working today.

We headed into the mountains with the sun shining once again. There were beautiful lakes, and stunning little towns where we stretched our legs and had coffee and snacks.

Then we dropped towards Lake Wakatipu, brightly lit and nestling amongst the mountains. Curving round its shore was Queenstown. The lake was populated with boats of all sizes, and there were aircraft taking off and climbing rapidly.

Queenstown, from the top of the Skyline.

The hotel was a bit of a building site – any views of the lake were blocked by scaffolding, and we heard several customers complaining. The underground car park was tight, with a very steep driveway down to it. Our room was a huge one-bedroom apartment but with a tiny little bathroom and a shower door that hit the flooring. Designers, eh?

We had a quick trip into the town centre and a walk by the lakeside. There were loads of restaurants and boat activities, and it’s obviously a place where people come to do sporty things.

One reason we were here was to meet another Jura pal of my wife’s, who had come out for a year to do ski instruction and was still here with a partner and a very active young son. Her dad and step-mum, whom we knew, were visiting.

The house is in a small estate that looks down a valley which has a river where you could do white-water rafting if you were that way inclined. We sat outside with beers, and got to know more about the lifestyle here; outdoors, doing things, complaining about the traffic lights and the tourists in ‘busy’ Queenstown.

When the man of the house got home – boots and socks off (many Kiwis go around barefoot) – there were lamb chops for dinner, with more beers. At this point I should confess that I’m not a lamb fan; somewhere in my youth I had tough, fatty roast lamb. But at the Rotary dinner in Blenheim, and here, the chops were delicious. I haven’t tried them since we got home, right enough.

Next day we were taken on a tour by the dad and step-mum on another gloriously sunny day.

We went out to Kelvin Heights and walked round the peninsula that houses the golf course – seeing other walkers and cyclists – followed by coffee in the clubhouse. We went up to Coronet Peak which is a ski resort in the winter (albeit with snow machines) and marvelled at the view back over the lake. 

Then it was Arrowtown. This is a wonderful suburb with an olde worlde feel. We walked along the river, admired the shops, and peered into the restaurants. It’s a highly desirable place to live – you can get to Queenstown itself on a boat – but obviously the cost of housing here is very high.

We had an ice cream, and I was assured than one scoop was plenty. How right they were. We were joined by my wife’s friend and her son – with his bike, racing round the BMX track until he was told we had to go and eat. Beers with dinner, then farewells and back to the hotel.

Next morning – on our own – we went up the Skyline gondola to enjoy splendid views over the city and the lake. One of the mountains we could see is called Ben Lomond, named by an early Scottish shepherd who came out here, obviously feeling homesick and lacking imagination.

There were many activities available at the top, from mountain bike trails to go karting to paragliding off the mountain. We watched several people – each strapped to an instructor – as they floated away down, and wondered whether we were being too cautious. Then I remembered my travel insurance t&cs.

Te Anau, Milford and Doubtful

We had been watching the news over the past three weeks as they fought to re-open the route into Milford Sound. It had been blocked by land slips, rockslides, and flooding rivers. Even cruise ships couldn’t come in because of the trees floating around. We found out later that the soil is relatively shallow in the area, so trees entwine their roots with others in order to stabilise themselves and grow. But once one tree goes, it starts a chain reaction – a tree avalanche – followed by the soil cascading down.

But we heard that the next day – despite continuing heavy rain – there were going to be the first trips in, restricted to coaches in a convoy. We were going to be lucky.

So, relieved, we enjoyed our drive out of Queenstown, round the wide valley, to Te Anau. The motel was nice, and the town much prettier than we’d expected. Ever town in New Zealand turned out to be pretty, with everyone sounding happy to live there.

That first evening we went on a tour across Lake Te Anau to the glow-worm caves. We were split into small groups. Ours was given a talk, and then we went into the caves, heads ducked.  There were warning red lights for low headroom, and some lighting in places. But the main part of the trip was in total darkness and complete silence.

Once our eyes adjusted, we started to see the little points of light everywhere. It was an amazing spectacle.

The next day, the trip to Milford was on, despite continuing persistent rain there.

Our coach driver – Curlz – had been doing the run for twenty years, and this was obviously her first time in since the blockages. Her commentary was fascinating. ‘See that huge rock on the right side of the road? Well last time I came through here it was on the left side.’

I hadn’t appreciated that the trip to the Sounds is actually part of the experience. Today we had fewer stops than usual, apparently, and visibility was poor. The journey itself was hairy in places.

One entertainment on the way was a very fast car – who shouldn’t have been on the road – who overtook us all very dangerously and sped off. A police car came out of a side road and gave chase. For a long time we could see the police car right behind the manic driver until he eventually stopped him. At one of the road checks further on, Curlz chatted to the people there and were told ‘Dwight fined him six hundred and fifty bucks: speeding, tailgating, and failing to stop for a police car’.

We reached Milford and boarded our boat. A TV crew was there to record it all, and we made a fleeting appearance on the news that evening.

The commentary on the boat told us that these pictures of Milford Sound in sunshine are actually atypical. This kind of weather, with waterfalls pouring off the cliffs all around the Sound, is normal and more atmospheric.

Milford Sound.

The boat trip was shorter than usual, but we were just glad we had managed to have the experience.

Te Anau was dry, and it was beers and an Italian (the same Italian as the previous evening) when we got back!

The next day’s trip to Doubtful Sound was different. The weather was dry, and getting there was more complicated. We took a small bus to lake Manapouri, then a boat down it, onto a bus over the pass, and the longer cruise on the Sound, right out to the entrance to Tasman Sea.

It was rough at the end of the Sound. One passenger was attempting to carry two cups of coffee, was thrown off balance by turbulence, and spilt the lot. We chatted to a couple from our motel who had been teachers in England, so there was some work talk.

Doubtful Sound.

Lunchbox meals supplied for both the cruises were excellent, and there was free tea and coffee on board.  The boats allowed for great viewing opportunities, though some people were good at getting in the way or pushing through.

We had happy hour beers at night with a barman who told us in advance which beers were on the deal. One happy Scotsman getting a bargain.

We popped into what looked like a sit-in chip shop and ordered the seafood platter for two. It exceeded our expectations!

Dunedin, Tekapo and Christchurch

It was a long drive across the south of the South Island to Dunedin, and the first journey we’d had that we thought was boring – farmland with few stops on our route. It was just a slog to get there.

We stopped at the first coffee place we found – a tiny cafe as part of a shop, that was a bit unprepossessing – and were surprised at how nice it was.

We parked in Dunedin for a walk round, and yes, it’s really Edinburgh with the street names and the districts. Beautiful architecture, and the laid-back friendly style we’d seen everywhere.

Dunedin.

Our hotel was out on the Otago peninsula. The drive round was beautiful, and we found that our hotel was very upmarket. We had a corner room with the most stunning view. Once again we were hardly going to be here. The concierge was originally from Glasgow, so I did the usual joke: what attracted you to this place?

Looking east from our hotel on the Otago Peninsula.

Our evening was out to the wild-life centre, where we watched albatrosses wheeling around, and we had dinner.

The main event was at nightfall, when the little blue penguins come ashore. We were warned to switch off the auto-focus on our cameras as the infra-red disturbs the penguins. As a result, I’ve got really crappy photographs. My wife’s iPhone was much better.

Little blue penguins coming ashore.

It was necessarily a late night, but so worth it.

We also discovered another fact about New Zealand: it’s not as far south as you think. In fact Queenstown is as far south as Bordeaux is north, and the most southerly part – Stewart Island, which we sadly couldn’t fit in – is equivalent to halfway up France.

Next day we were off to Lake Tekapo, which reminded us a lot of Lake Louise in British Columbia. In fact, on one leg of the journey we stopped at a viewpoint and a campervan pulled up behind us, the driver and his wife getting out to also admire the view. I mentioned that the scenery looked a lot like BC, where we’d visited. They agreed. They lived in Vancouver.

Check-in was a shambles but we got a free drink out of it, and the room was worth the wait. We explored the visitor centre and decided not to do the evening under the stars event (‘if cloudy, this will be held indoors’??). We’d done this at Uluru, and felt that couldn’t be topped.

We walked round the lake, had a beer, went to what we thought was a Chinese restaurant but turned out to be Japanese. We went for it on the basis that it was packed with Chinese and Japanese people. Instead of fretting over what to eat, we plumped for the mixed sushi box, washed down with a pint of Asahi beer.

Lake Tekapo.

We were conscious that we were nearing the end of the trip as we stood on the balcony looking at the stars. 

The last drive was back to Christchurch, and the road in seemed outrageously congested with traffic, more than we were used to. The first time we’d driven in, we’d missed a new bit of dual carriageway and ended up driving all the way round the north of the city. Today we were straight in.

We dumped the bags at reception and took the hire car back. We’d noticed a small dent in the door the day before, but the girl who checked the car didn’t seem bothered by it.

We walked round the town again, and visited Quake City. This has photographs, videos and witness statements from the earthquake. The stories were harrowing. 

One young woman had been trapped in her office – she’d decided to work on into lunchtime and was caught – with her hand under a concrete pillar. When the rescuers got the pillar off her, she saw her fingers fall away. They retrieved them and she had them sewn back on.

Another man had been flying home to Christchurch and was diverted to Auckland. He watched the coverage on television, and saw pictures of a collapsed building which he recognised as the place where his wife worked. He got himself to Christchurch and waited on the edges of the rescue work, until he was told that there was no hope at all of anyone being found alive. That building was where the vast majority of deaths occurred.

In the evening we had our last fish and chips, our last NZ beers, and packed.

We still had most of the next day, though, so we took that little hop-on hop-off trolley round the centre, and absorbed some of the history of the place.

Christchurch.

Back to the hotel, and a pick-up to the airport. The driver lived here, and had strong memories of the earthquakes, including the big one.

Christchurch airport is relatively small, and the A380 dwarfed it. We had a drink or three in the lounge, and boarded for another drink or three.

We were force-fed a three-course meal, and landed in Sydney where we disembarked for an hour or so – just enough time for a Bundaberg rum. Back on board the same plane, and another three-course meal. I was stuffed.

We chased the sun all the way to Dubai. The worry here was that Covid was now big news in China, and we saw lots of Chinese travellers. However, they all wore masks – as they so often do – and kept themselves apart.

Showers, drinks and snacks, and onto the 777 for home – and another meal. Service on this leg wasn’t so good – nothing as attentive as all the other legs. The plane was quiet, with most noise from the cabin crew blethering and laughing together.

Then Edinburgh, a pickup to take us home, and time to relax and take stock.

Final Impressions

In the weeks after we got home, Covid-19 overtook everything until we were in full lockdown. It wasn’t a good time to mention holidays which other people were not now going to be able to take, especially such long, faraway ones. It also wasn’t a good time to calculate our carbon footprint and brag about it.

But we can now reflect on that incredible place, and of the people we know who had made the trip and stayed – and others who would have if they’d been younger. The downside – and it’s a biggie – is that you’re well cut off from other family. It’s a big ask getting them to come all that way to visit, both in terms of travelling time, cost and the need to stay with you for any reasonable length of time. With ageing relatives, it’s simply not practical at all. Some of the people we met were there, at least in part, to visit family. For one lady, it was the first trip to see her sister in thirty years. The time difference makes communications with the UK problematic too. 

The biggest attraction in NZ, it seems to me, is the lifestyle. There’s room to move, and the climate is really good – though there will be increasing numbers of severe weather instances. If you like the outdoors, then you’re in heaven.

Food and drink is really good (especially when you choose the correct beers at happy hour), and the people are friendly. They make Aussies seem brash and loud!

We had noted a large Chinese influence. Kiwis depend on tourism, and much of that is from China. In that respect, Covid has hit their economy hard. In shops and restaurants, many of the owners seem to be Chinese. And it seems it’s a burgeoning winter refuge for many from the US.

Our final, lasting impression of New Zealand? A beautiful country that is appreciated by its peoples and is being well looked after. It feels safe, despite the ever-present threat of an earthquake of a volcano. Go there – experience it. We’re glad we did.

And maybe you’ll stay.



New Zealand 2020 Part 1 – The North Island

Uncategorised Posted on Mon, September 21, 2020 16:28:08

Introduction

We have been adopting a policy of ‘do it while we can’ with regard to travel. Too many people never see the trips they had dreamed about. The world – and life itself – has too many variables to allow for detailed long-term planning.

In May 2019 we were in China and Hong Kong. A couple of weeks after we got back, Hong Kong erupted with protests and will never be the same again.

In February 2020 we went to New Zealand for around five weeks. We got home just as the pandemic was kicking off. While we were there, New Zealand closed its borders to visitors from mainland China.

Since then, foreign travel has been fraught with difficulties.

We originally thought of New Zealand for a 2021 ‘special birthday’ trip, but we went with our mantra of ‘do it while we can’.

The planning was, of course, as detailed as could be. We sought advice from friends who had been there, and Trailfinders. There was a self-imposed constraint: we wanted to meet up with friends of my wife’s whom she knew from Jura. And Elton John decided to hold a concert in Napier, which meant that there was no accommodation to be had there.

But the trip was booked, the tours within New Zealand were booked, and the decision was made to fly business class with Emirates; if you’re going to blow the budget, then really blow the budget.

We’d once flown business before – an unexpected upgrade at the gate at Heathrow for a flight to New York. We liked the service. We liked the food. We liked the free drink.

Flying to Auckland was something else, though. The 777 to Dubai was absolutely fine. The business lounge at Dubai – shower and a change of clothes – was perfect. But the A380! My! A plane with an actual free bar on it? A Scotsman’s idea of heaven.

The bar on the A380.

And so we arrived in Auckland with the feeling that we’d already had a luxury all-inclusive break. The driver that picked us up was very friendly and helpful – like all the Kiwis we met, as it turned out.

We got to our hotel – noting that the streets all around were being dug up to install a new underground line – and (eventually) into our room. Then it was off to explore the waterfront, with the only fixed parameters being to eat fish and chips and drink ‘sav’; ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ has too many syllables for this part of the world. (‘Avocados’ and ‘kilometres’ also have too many syllables, apparently.)

Auckland

Despite the roadworks, Auckland is simply gorgeous. The marinas were full of boats of all sizes – Auckland has something like 33% boat ownership, possibly because there is so much sailing to be done – and it’s all clean and lovely. There were a couple of cruise ships parked up, and we saw the passengers stumbling around the city wearing their lanyards in the coming days. (Been there, done that.)

Everyone seems to be out walking or cycling – or on those motorised scooters. This became a notable feature of NZ; you live outside as much as you can. It even has the second highest number of golf courses per head of population – second only to Scotland.

There was also an eclectic mix of peoples, including many Chinese. As we progressed through the holiday, we noticed that the Maori peoples seem to be very well integrated with normal life, unlike the first nation people in Australia who are still treated very much as an underclass. Bi-lingual signs were everywhere, and tourist events began with ‘Kia ora’ and a welcome in Maori, followed by the same again (presumably) in English.

It turns out that NZ does very nice craft beers, all over the country, so I got down to sampling straight away – along with the fish and chips. Not cod or haddock; in fact I can’t remember the names of the fish they fry, but they are delicious. Over the holiday I lost count of how much fish and chips I ate. I expected them to weigh me at the airport on our way home.

The beer was lovely but very expensive – a Scotsman’s holiday nightmare.

Despite the food and alcohol and being able to lie flat and sleep on the flights, we were knackered by seven o’clock. Early night.

Next day was our traditional hop-on hop-off bus tour, to get the whole layout of the city and learn some of the history. This was supplemented by a visit to the Auckland Museum. They have a pricing policy: tourists pay, locals are free. What a nice idea.

It was here that I learned that the first peoples to arrive in NZ got here a mere 800 years ago, from Polynesia. I’d assumed they were always here, as in Australia. Europeans started arriving in the mid-seventeenth century, firstly the Dutch (Abel Tasman is the guy credited with the first appearance, and ’New Zealand’ is essentially a Dutch name – the original settlers had called it Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud).

Going further back, New Zealand split from the supercontinent Gondwana 85 million years ago. This meant that everything developed there separately. Factor in massive volcanic activity that continues today, and climate change over the millennia, and you have a land like no other. Fauna consisted mainly of birds; land animals couldn’t hack it.

Humans of course – starting with the Maori – wiped out several species of birds and decimated much of the forests. The fabulous Kauri trees, some thousands of years old, were belatedly saved when somebody realised that while their wood makes beautiful furniture, they take a long time to re-grow. Nowadays NZ is very appreciative of the need to protect its environment. The impact of man-made climate change was felt strongly as ash and smoke from the Australian bush-fires (a country run by a climate-change denier) tinged the sunsets and settled on the glaciers here. In fact, the North Island was experiencing a long spell of hot dry weather and was near to declaring a drought (I have to confess we loved the weather) while the south west of South island had been ravaged twice in a year by once-in-a-lifetime-storms (more of that later).

Also in the museum is a demo of what a volcanic eruption would be like in Auckland, as the room was shaken and the ground rumbled. Just the previous year, of course, the volcano on White Island had wiped out a group of cruise ship passengers. We’d thought of doing a cruise round New Zealand, and we’d certainly have taken that trip…

As part of our ticket, we got the ferry over to Devonport and walked around. It is just breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful. The only similar place is Niagara-on-the-lake in Ontario. I would love to live here, but I’d never get anything done; I’d just walk around and sit and drink coffee and look at the views across to Auckland.

Auckland from Devonport.

The next day eclipsed Devonport. We took a boat trip to Waiheke Island, and a hop-on hop-off around it. It was just stunning! We swam at Onetangi beach, and lunched at the nearby Charlie Farley’s restaurant, where I assume the owner is a Two Ronnies fan.

Waiheke Island

They grow wine and brew beer on Waiheke, so we had to try that. At the Tantalus estate we had a beer flight (each), which seems to be a thing these days. Some of the beers were fruity and sour, which again is a modern fad, and I’m not all that keen. (I worked in a pub in Glasgow as a student; any beer that was cloudy and/or sour got sent back.) At the Thomas Bach winery we had wine.

Late afternoon, back in Auckland, we went up the Sky Tower to enjoy the view over this beautiful city. A peaceful night’s sleep was interrupted by a fire alarm, which we could have done without.

Paihia and Tairua

The signs at the hire car place warn that New Zealanders drive on a different side of the road. They don’t, at least not as far as we’re concerned. More useful advice was that you have to park at the side of the road in the direction of travel.

We’d been told that driving anywhere in NZ takes longer than you think. This is true, but no one explained why: it’s because of roadworks and windy hill roads. But everyone drives sensibly to the speed limit, and, of course, the roads are much quieter. This is a country the size of the UK but with a population less than that of Scotland. Most of this population is in the North Island, but it’s by no means congested.

Another reason driving is slow is that there are endless opportunities to stop and look at the views.

Travelling up the west coast from Auckland.

We drove north out of Auckland, stopping at Hotienga Harbour, Omapere beach, and Opononi. There was a Kauri forest, with a tree – Tane Mahuta – that is over two thousand years old. We lingered at the back of an organised group with a Maori guide, whose message as he pointed to this giant tree was that if we do not take care of the little things, the big things will not survive. Wise words indeed.

We arrived at Paihia on the edge of a large bay full of islands, which is called the Bay of Islands. The town itself is stunning – I’ll use this word a lot – and the motel satisfactory, with happy hour prices that didn’t make me very happy. (Five pounds for a pint at happy hour?) We walked round the town and along the beach.

Paihia

In the morning we found a cafe for breakfast, and then had a swim in the bay under bright blue skies.

The afternoon was a boat trip across the bay to a huge rock with a hole through it, called The Hole in the Rock. The bay was alive with boats. On the way back there was a stop for a barbecue and swim at Urupukapuka. We actually swam in the path of speedboats coming in to tie up, so it was a bit of a health and safety nightmare, but the place was heavenly. Everyone around looked happy to be there, and chatted away.

We found a pub with reasonable prices and very good beers, followed by delicious ice cream as we walked back to the motel, the evening still gloriously warm.

The next day was a long drive back down past Auckland (one of their very rare stretches of motorway) and round and up the Coromandel peninsula. The road was windy and hilly, with lots of roadworks. Outside one tiny village where we had coffee and scones there was a tiny book-swap box. In fact, there were dozens of places where you could swap books or buy them second-hand. 

We stopped at the summit of our drive to look down over the bay, and then it was down into Tairua.

The accommodation was run by an ex-teacher – so there was a bit of education chat: basically education in rural NZ has the same issues that education in rural Scotland has, just more of them – and cosy, but with no air-con. The owner gave us some advice on what to do, and also gave us a loan of a couple of spades for the trip the next day.

We drove around the town: gorgeous beaches, gorgeous houses, an expensive supermarket, and a glorious meal in a restaurant. Then beers on the veranda we shared with the currently-empty hut next door, looking at a sunset tinged with smoke from Australia.

In the morning we drove up to Hahai and took the water taxi to Cathedral Cove for a swim. Parts of the coast were similar to the Algarve, and of course the day was sunny and hot. (Locals were complaining it had been too hot for too long.)

Cathedral Cove

Back at Hahai we had ice cream and purchased beers.

The highlight – and must-do – of this part of the trip was Hot Water Beach, which has to be done near low tide. We decided to go there and wait, rather than go back to the accommodation and drive out here again.

So I spent a few hours turning into a lobster. We went up to the shop to get an ice lolly, to find out they shut at four. Good for their work-life balance, but a bummer for us tourists.

Finally the tide had receded enough for us to explore the amazing Hot Water Beach experience.

All of NZ is volcanic, and sits on the boundaries of various tectonic plates. Here, boiling water seeps up to the surface at low tide – the rest of the time the weight of water keeps it down. If you just shuffle your feet in the sand you can get scalded.

The main pastime is to dig a hole in the sand – hence the loan of the spades – and get the right mix of boiling and sea water, then sit there, either alone or on couples or in a big group. It’s hard to get it just right. In fact, we never really did. The sea kept swamping our efforts.

Hot Water Beach – it’s longer than it looks here!

When we felt we’d had the full experience, we decided to have a final swim. As I waded into the ocean, a huge stingray drifted past. I decided to give the last swim a miss.

On that point, New Zealand doesn’t have deadly animals like Australia has. Even the stingrays aren’t dangerous unless you stand or jump on one. But this guy was seriously big.

Back at our accommodation, it was beers and fish and chips and another gorgeous sunset.

Tauranga to Taupo

The drive was relatively short, and we ended up in Tauranga, a big town on the edge of the Bay of Plenty. The hotel was very upmarket, and we felt it was a shame that we were hardly going to be there. Yet again, the weather was glorious. 

The must-do here is to climb Mount Maunganui, which we did. It’s an unrelenting uphill path which feels more than its two hundred metres official height. As the path curls round the mountain – a dormant volcano – the views get better and better. Miles of beaches, boats speeding along, hang-gliders jumping into space. The only annoyance was people jogging past us as we coughed and wheezed our way up.

From the summit we looked across Tauranga and the bay. Somewhere out in the distance was White Island, a sobering reminder of what can happen here at any time, without warning.

From the top of Mount maunganui

We had lunch at a beachfront cafe, a brief rest at the hotel, and then met an old friend of my wife’s from Jura. She worked in medicine and had come to NZ for a year to work. Fast forward, and she’s still here, with a Kiwi husband and three children. When we’d arranged to meet them they’d said ‘on the beach’; that was months in advance. This was what they do after school and work, go to the beach.

As we watched the sun ease its way down, eating pizza and drinking beers, seeing a cruise liner heading out to sea, we really felt we were getting an insight to family life here, and appreciating the lifestyle. They work hard, no doubt, but the hours are good and they’re laid-back, not frenetic and stressed like so many in the UK.

It wasn’t far to Rotourua, which is pretty much in the heart of the volcanic area. There is a constant smell of sulphur in the air, and the lake beside which the hotel sat steams and bubbles.

We finally got round to buying a SIM card for the old iPhone we’d brought, which we should have done earlier; we’d left our main mobile numbers with the places we’d stayed – and with the hire car people – and actually missed a call to say we’d left some paperwork at one place. Nothing vital, though.

Many of the places we stayed had laundry facilities, which was essential. And while I’m writing about mundane things, we carried supplies of cereal bars, bananas and water with us. Breakfast was often taken in the car until we could get to a mid-morning coffee stop (usually with cake).

The hotel did a ‘Maori experience’ but we’d been advised to do the proper thing, so we had booked a visit to the Tamaki Maori Village that evening. A coach picked us up, and the female Maori driver was worth the cost on her own. (By the way, New Zealander’s don’t hassle for tips – they don’t even mention it.) On the way, Gerry from Sweden was voted in as our tribe’s leader, from a short list of one.

At the village, we mingled beside other coachloads, and all the tribal leaders got their briefing. Basically, treat this seriously: it’s not a joke.

The Maori arrived both on foot and in a large canoe. There was the ceremony of greeting, with a seriously-scary Haka. Each tribal leader approached, picked up the fern that was thrown down – making eye contact the whole time – and touched noses. This was the way it would have been in the past.

Tamaki Maori Village (our leader Gerry shaking hands).

We split up into our tribes and were taken round various stations. One involved a demonstration of Maori crafts, others were activities that were actually designed to prepare young Maoris for warfare by improving hand-eye coordination. Volunteers from amongst us took part, and I ended up being trained – unsuccessfully – to perform the Haka.

Then there was the show, with singing and dancing and story-telling. And an explanation of Hangi cooking – basically an underground slow-cook – and then the meal itself. There was a small bar, and I decided to save everyone else any embarrassment by going up first to get drinks. At our table were some young women from all over the world on one of those Kiwi Tours, currently doing New Zealand in a rather different way from what we were.

Also around were people from North America, including one from Nova Scotia. We shared our common Scottish heritage, and love of Bruce Guthro and Runrig.

The bus driver kept up the entertainment on the way back to the hotels, including ‘she’ll be coming round the mountain’, where she went round and round a roundabout several times to illustrate the song.

Just south of Rotorua is Wai-o-tapu, a geothermal park. We got there early, and then had the bizarre experience of having to drive out again, park where the geyser was, wait for it to be primed to blow, race back to the main car park to get a space, and then walk round the park itself. Having seen Icelandic geysers, we agree that this particular geyser was not worth the hassle.

But the park itself was really interesting. Lakes steamed sulphur-laden air, some were stagnant but brightly coloured – the ‘artists’ palette’, the ‘champagne pool’ – and the whole, very long walk round it all was just wondrous.

Wai-o-tapu – geothermal park

We drove on down to Taupo, where neighbours of ours had worked as locums for a few months a couple of years before. It was a beautiful town on the edge of the huge lake, and we just enjoyed the experience of being there. All the restaurants were very busy, so we had to wait for our fishburger lunch, but it wasn’t a problem.

Someone we spoke to later said that this would have made a better base that Rotorua, and that is arguable – but Rotorua had the Maori experience! Our neighbours in Dundee, who had worked as locums for several months, had been based here. It is very central for exploring the North Island.

Taihape and Wellington

We then headed south to Taihape, a long drive across desert and a big military area, with very parched grassland.

We’d been told to expect NZ to look like the 1970’s. On the journey we’d seen some very old British cars, along with some classic American ones. Couple this with herring-bone parking on main streets in some towns, and we could imagine we’d time-travelled into the old mid-west.

In Taihape we really felt we’d gone back in time, with pick-ups and old British and American cars all over the place. We stopped to buy sandwiches, juice and beer for dinner, and headed up the hill to our overnight stop.

It was a tortuous drive up to the top, then we were onto an unsigned unpaved road that would treacherously downhill to the river valley, to our stop at River Valley. When we passed a Kiwi Travel coach, we realised what we had come to.

It had looked very posh on their website, but in reality it was a hippy paradise, with the manager as laid-back as the guests. Most of these were young adventurers, here for mountain biking and river rafting. There were a few ordinary families, and the surroundings were pleasant sitting there by the river, but we felt a little out of place.

There was no TV, no Wi-Fi, no mobile reception. But after a couple of beers we began to appreciate it all; it was part of the experience.

River Valley.

The drive back up the track the next day was a nightmare, with the traction control in the car kicking in regularly. The only real annoyance was that it had taken an hour off the main road to get here, and an hour to get back. There were other hotels on the main road that we could have stayed in.

But we made it to Wellington by lunchtime, found the hotel, found the car park opposite, checked in, and headed out.

Wellington is very small, steep and compact – we didn’t even think it was worth doing the hop-on hop-off. Instead, we found the ‘cable car’ (which is really a funicular) and rode it up to the top of the botanic gardens for the view and a snack.

We walked back down into the city, past the Georgian government buildings with its strange Beehive where parliament sits, and down to the waterfront.

This was a lovely area. There were big container ships coming in, but they were kept well away from the front. Also away to the east was the cruise ship terminal. The natural harbour is huge, protected by islands and parts of the peninsula, many with huge houses on them.

Wellington.

We’d been told to eat at Crab Shack on the waterfront. When we got there, there were no tables available, and we were prepared for a wait when a young Irish woman came over and said they were just about to leave, so we join her and her partner.

She was a civil engineer who had come out to help with the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake – and stayed. Her partner was from PEI. ‘I bet you don’t know where that is.’ ‘Ha – we’ve been there!’

They told us about the harbour fireworks later, and left us to it. We had a superb meal, and then found The Garage Project, home to many craft beers, and later watched the fireworks.

The next day we strolled along the waterfront. There were teams doing dragon-boat racing, and we watched for a while, but the main event was the Te Papa museum, which included the Gallipoli exhibition designed by Peter Jackson.

The displays here were second-to-none: models of the landscape with lights showing the progress – or lack of it – of ANZAC troops during the campaign; the lead-up to the battles, and lies that the Turks were dreadful fighters and totally unprepared for battle; larger than life models of soldiers, with plaques giving their history and the conditions under which they fought. It conveyed the whole disastrous futility of that campaign, which, of course, stayed with Churchhill all his life.

One of the stunning exhibits in the Gallipolli exhibition.

Back outside to enjoy the atmosphere, lunch from a van parked there, and a chat to a random woman who was just sitting around. Generally everyone in NZ was happy to talk and give tips on what to do.

We had our first rain shower that evening as we sat in an Italian restaurant. However, down in the South Island things had been bad. Milford Sound, where we would be in a couple of weeks or so, had been cut off by floods and landslips. Our trip there looked unlikely.



China part 5: Hong Kong (May 2019) and final notes

Travel Posted on Wed, December 11, 2019 09:47:23
The view from the Peak

Having seen what’s happened in Hong Kong since we were there in My 2019, we’re grateful for our timing. Looking back, we may just have seen Hong Kong at its best, before China flexed its muscles.

But at that time, Hong Kong was not China. Not quite. Our Chinese visa was collected as we left Shanghai on an international flight. The minibus that transferred us from the new airport on HK’s Lantau Island was right-hand drive. The traffic lights and pedestrian crossing were British-style. We were effectively in a part of Britain inhabited by something like seven million Chinese. Facebook and Twitter worked once again, as did Google.

Our hotel was in the Whampoa district of Kowloon, with a view from our suite – nice birthday upgrade by my wife – of most of the strait between us and Hong Kong island, from the old Kai Tak runway – now a cruise terminal – on our left, and across to Causeway Bay.

The hotel staff showed levels of service and politeness that I can only imagine must have held sway back in the days of empire. They brought me a little birthday cake!

We headed out for a walk round the immediate are, past a grand, stranded motor yacht that had been converted into a combined shopping and arts centre. We found a shop that sold beers and soft drinks, and went back to the hotel to drink a couple of the same, then head up to the rooftop pool.

It was a generous-sized pool, with a stunning view over to Hong Kong Island. We swam and stared, then got in the hot tub and stared some more.

Then we remembered we were on our own: no Amy to take us to a restaurant! So we caught the courtesy bus into the Tsim Sha Tsui district (which we learned later is pronounced chim sha chewy), getting dropped off by the Peninsula Hotel, arguably the most luxurious in the city.

We merged with the crowds, and wandered uncertainly through the hot evening, until we headed down into a basement network of shops and fast food places. We chose one that allowed us to identify dishes from pictures, and collected them from the servery. It was very nice too, as was that milky drink with the small beans at the bottom of the cup.

More walking, round the piers where we would catch the iconic Star Ferry in due course, and back to catch the bus back to the hotel for a nightcap as we gazed from our windows across to the lights.

We’d booked a half-day tour of Hong Kong Island, since it seemed to cover pretty much all we wanted to see and still left us plenty of time to fill in any gaps. We got picked up after breakfast – breakfast with one of the greatest breakfast views anywhere (maybe second to the bacon rolls at the top of the Jasper SkyTram).

On the tour were three of our fellow travels from the mainland China tour, and it was good to see them. In fact, there were only five of us in total on the tour, and the guide was very informative.

The first item was going up the Peak – by bus, sadly, since the tram was out of action for its refurbishment. The guide was good, pointing out that house prices climbed as the bus climbed. Once up on the viewing platform, with a view that we’d seen so many times in films and on TV, there was another of those ‘I can’t believe we’re here’ moments. We did note that one whole side of the mountain was forest: it was by no means an urban jungle all across it.

From there we were taken south, past Repulse Bay – and an anecdote about the golf club we saw: one million HK$ to join (£100000). Wow. The punchline is that it’s a nine-hole course.

We got to Stanley and were let loose for a time in the market, with advice to haggle – hard. I haggled. My wife haggled more. I got a tiny drone for about £17. She got a dress with a necklace for some undisclosed amount (but she had haggled – hard).

We were feeling peckish so we bought a bizarre thing: some kind of waffle, freshly made and then wrapped up, with ice cream blobbed inside. Nice, but difficult to eat, especially towards the end.

From there it was over to Aberdeen, and a trip on a sampan through an unbelievably busy harbour – and the sight of a floating restaurant amongst floating homes, and a sampan scooping rubbish from the water as it buzzed around.

We got another hard sell preceded by a tour of a jewellery factory: very nice, very expensive, and too much time given to it.

The tour guide was good, and gave us some home truths about Hong Kong, including the fact that bsuniesses – and their workers – were being drawn to mainland China because there was no minimum wage there.

Then back to the hotel and out to Tsim Sha Tsui. My nephew’s father-in-law is a pilot with Cathay Pacific, and lives with his wife in Hong Kong. At my nephew’s wedding earlier in the year, we’d said we must meet up. So meet up we did.

First was drinks in their apartment, looking out from something like the 29th floor over Victoria harbour, and an insight to the ex-pat lifestyle – which sounds pretty damn good, I must say, if you can cope with the crowds and the air quality.

Then down to the Pacific Club. I’d googled it and found it was on a pier jutting out into the harbour. I was slightly wrong. The Pacific Club is the entire pier. We got the tour: several restaurants, gyms, a swimming pool, treatment rooms – a whole leisure centre.

We had dinner outside, facing Hong Kong Island, drinking beers. The eight o’clock harbour light show, where all the buildings on the Island go crazy, came and went. And then nature put on its own light show: lightning and thunder.

We had a great evening, much enhanced by the stories of their lifestyle here, and many anecdotes. At the end they asked if we were busy the next evening. We said no. So did we want to come to the races at Happy Valley. Did we? Hell, yes!

We made our own way out to Lantau Island on the underground, which was actually overground for much of the way. The platforms have glass walls to stop you falling on the tracks, and the doors on the trains match up. There are arrows on the ground to show how you let people out before you get on. These sort of worked. Inside the train, there is the standard underground map, but these ones have lights to show the line you’re on and the next station. Foolproof!

We’d booked the glass-floor Ngong Ping Cable Car going up. It’s a long ride with a 60 degree turn at one point (and a bit confused at the start: we waited roughly for our time slot and then queued without realising we didn’t have to do any of that) and well worth it for the spectacular views over Lantau and the South China Sea, including the massive airport. How did they manage at Kai Tak?

The big Buddha came into view, and got bigger and bigger. And bigger.

We disembarked at Ngong Ping village, which was a collection of shops, restaurants and fast food outlets. We walked past them all, ever onwards to the Buddha, which still kept getting bigger and bigger, and then finally the long, long flight of steps to the base, along with hundreds of others.

At the top we walked round a couple of times, marvelled at the view, and kept looking up at the Buddha, with the smile and the benevolent wave ot his arm. There were things to be done inside the base – at a price – but we had the briefest of looks, and back to the steps. Here I was accosted by a young man who asked if he could have a picture wth me. Of course!

And we again crossed paths with the three members of the China group again.

From here it was down to walk round the grounds of the monestary, and back to the village for something to eat – a sandwich of some sort – and then back on the normal cable car to sea level, and the train back to Whampoa, via a couple of connections.

We changed and went back into town on the courtesy bus, and back to the same fast food place as the Monday evening. It was just as fast, but not as good. Still, it filled a gap.

From here it was the ridiculously cheap Star Ferry – I opted not to pay the concession rate of something like 16p but the full fare of 22p, or something. On the other side it was the metro for a couple of stops, and met my nephews in-laws again. We went up to the street – mobbed, of course – and onto the tram – the ding-ding. Exactly like the Glasgow trams I remember from my childhood, but smaller. Or maybe I’ve got bigger. Again, the cost – paid on exit – was stupidly low: I paid the concession rate this time.

Why do people drive in Hong Kong?

We’d seen the Happy valley race track from our tour the day before, but its location was even more stark this time because of the stadium lights in it, and the streetlights and lights from the high-rises all around. It was right in the middle of the city. And it was packed.

For many, it seemed, it was a social occasion, or a tourist thing. But for many Chinese it was a serious evening’s gambling. We were given programmes, queued for very expensive wine and beer in plastic cups, and shown how to fill in the betting slips – like machine-readable multiple choice answer sheets. We managed to fill them in wrongly every time, but the person on the other side of the desk just sighed a little and rubbed out what needed to be rubbed out, and ticked the correct box.

Most of the action was watched on screens, except for the final straight where we could see them thunder by. As my losses mounted up, and my quest for a win grew ever more scientific, my wife kept cheering every time her horses – chosen at random – romped home.

It was quite mad and very exhilarating. A solid bit of Hong Kong life.

On the last day, we were due to be picked up in the evening, so we had the whole day. A couple of former colleagues live in Hong Kong – she is CEO of a group of international schools – and they said they could fit us in for coffee at four.

One of theperks of being a Rotarian is that you can turn up for a meeting anywhere in the world. I checked online, and found that there are many Rotary clubs in Hong Kong, and one met this lunchtime in the Peninsula Hotel. I emailed to let them know we were coming along, and to tell them we had no jacket or tie with us: no problem said Marco, you’ll be most welcome. The clincher was that my wife wanted to get inside that hotel!

We duly turned up, were accosted by a member of staff, and explained why we were there. Up to the first floor, and into the area to meet the president, secretary and a couple of members, and choose our lunch. The price of £47 is a bit dearer that my own club in Broughty Ferry, but it was three courses with wine, which is fair enough.

We were one of a few guests. The president and secretary were both Swiss, who had worked in Hong Kong and stayed there. Some of the other men – it was an all-male club – looked like ex-pats too, but most were Chinese (though a Chinese-speaking club met at the same time just down the corridor).

It was interesting chatting to them over lunch, and hearing from the Rotaract young people. Then, as ever, the visitors told a little about where they were from and what their club did. I did my thing about Broughty Ferry and said they would all be most welcome. Then the guy from North Milan gave a wee talk, which was much funnier than mine. He said their club used to have the most amazing parties – because Berlusconi had been a member!

From there it was over on the Star Ferry for a wander until it was time to meet our old colleagues. They lived in an apartment block reaching up from the four seasons shopping complex. They took us to the coffee lounge in their leisure suite – on the 59th floor. We looked way down on the Pacific Club and my nephew’s in-laws’ apartment by Victoria Harbour.

We had a good catch-up, and also an illustration of what life was like here – they are both very keen runners, so a lot of their life is about running. But they also told us about the new extradition law that was potentially coming in, and predicted that there would be trouble. I don’t think they expected quite so much trouble.

We said cheerio, went back on the Star Ferry and the courtesy bus to our hotel, and waited for our pickup to the airport, and the 12-hour flight to Heathrow.

Aberdeen harbour

Final impressions?

We’re so glad we went, and everything we’ve seen and heard since we got home has confirmed that. This once-in-a-lifetime trip had all the wow factor we’d hoped for. We saw those sights: we walked on the Wall, we were in the Forbidden City, we stood at the top of the Peak.

But there’s more than that, because travel isn’t just about seeing things.

We feel we have a bit of an understanding of what the Chinese government is trying to do, and that it is – broadly speaking – doing a lot of the right things. The ‘strong government’ that our tour guide Amy spoke about is developing the country in a massive way: on a documentary we saw a remark that China has poured more concrete in the past three years than the US has in the past thirty. That’s the scale of the development. And they are taking people out of poverty, boosting the middle classes.

For all its crowds and traffic, China feels very safe. There’s no online abuse. That’s because the Internet is locked down and monitored, of course. People walk around looking happy enough, and – apart from the pushing through – they are well-behaved and courteous to each other.

Of course, there is not exactly an even division of wealth. It’s now well-known that President Xi has accumulated a huge fortune, and put it all in his family members’ names.

And if you speak out against the government, you will be arrested – picked off the street if necessary – and there are no checks and balances on what happens next to you. Muslims in the north-west of China, where there was some terrorism a few years ago, are having a very bad time of it indeed. 

Hong Kong is an interesting one. It was so free and open, with Facebook and Twitter and Google and all, but Chinese control is  coming. At the time of writing, it looks like Chinese control may come very soon indeed.

Let’s be honest, we couldn’t live in China. For a fleeting time, Hong Kong looked like a vibrant, thriving city, with excellent public transport and low taxes, but recent events have changed that.

But, to repeat, we’re glad we went. We have some understanding of this remarkable country, and only because we went there.

On the Yangtze



China part 4: Guilin, Yangshuo, and Shanghai

Travel Posted on Fri, December 06, 2019 15:21:20
On the river between Guilin and Yangshuo

Today was the four-hour river-boat trip to Yangshuo, where we were staying overnight before coming back to Guilin, so we decanted one night’s worth of stuff into our small suitcase – which the minibus was bringing to our new hotel – and left the main luggage behind, hoping we’d see it again.

I’d expected a quiet river trip, but once again we were only one groups amongst hundreds and hundreds of tourists on dozens of boats. We also noticed that our passport number – two digits asterisked out – were on the ticket. We’d seen this on all our big journeys, but on a 4-hour river trip? Please!

The trip was gorgeous, through a rural landscape of sandstone stacks covered with vegetation. It was ultra-Chinese, and interesting to know that the Chinese think so too: one of the scenes from the boat is on the back of the 10 Yuan note.

We walked through the heat to our – rather old-fashioned – hotel in Yangshuo. The wesbite had said they had a pool, and we looked forward to that. They don’t have a pool.

We went out for a walk through the city and the shops, and were accosted by a group of Chinese teenage girls who wanted to talk to us. They were studying English and wanted to practise, so we had a chat. It turns out their English teacher was Scottish. As a finale, they directed us to McDonalds for a mysterious cold milky drink with little black beans in the bottom of the cup.

At night there was another show, wich had come highly recommended, but hardly anyone on the tour could face it: the humidity and threatening rain, along with the schedule we’d been under, had got too much.

So a group of us found a German bar and had some drinks. On the way I met more Chinese students and had a chat. When my wife appeared, the girls asked if this was my ‘lover’. They immediately realised their error – sort of – and we explained.

Our minibus picked us up and drove the road back to Guilin (and yes, we could easily have got back the evening before, but the show was on the schedule).

On the way we stopped to walk through a farm. Old buildings, people working the rice fields, ragged kids watching us, ancient farm vehicles. This was a China that was a long way from the cities and bullet trains.

Also noted on the journey was the amount of bamboo scaffolding in use: as strong as steel, and environmentally friendly since it’s renewable.

And we met a cormorant fisherman – at least, he owned and trained the cormorants, which did the fishing, with string round their necks so they couldn’t swallow the fish they caught. Cue half an hour of pictures with the man’s hat and the bamboo pole holding a cormorant at each end.

We were taken to some impressive caves, and walked through uplit stalagmites and downlit stalactites. Impressive.

From there we went to a pearl factory. This was the traditional history and description of pearls – the salt-water ones are the best – and then we were taken to glass cases that covered a huge room, with prices increasing from one side to the next. This time my wife was interested, and she bought a little pair of salt-water pearly earrings. Very nice.

From here back to our hotel, and yes, the luggage was there. Once again we walked out, meeting up in an Irish bar this time, and getting back to the hotel in time to see the eight o’clock waterfall down the outside of it

Close to our hotel was a park with Ronghu Lake in the middle, and two pagodas nearby. We heard about the Chinese ying-yang philosophy, which I knew, and were shown examples: two bridges over the lake, a zig-zag walkway.

Once more children gazed at us in wonder, especially when we said ‘ni hao’. Many adults took photos of us.

We visited the south gate, the last remaining part of the city wall, and were told stories of dragons. This had been a theme throughout the tour. We’ve inherited two stone lions beside a path in our garden: these are now being referred to as the dragons protecting our house (ably assisted by our kneeling archer).

From here to the airport, and an interesting issue at security where one of the Aussies who had an artificial leg – and a spare – was hastily taken off to be searched with some thoroughness. Our guide Amy explained that Guilin is quite close to the Vietnam border, and drugs are a problem. Hence the paranoia.

Apart from that, the airport was stunning – though the lattes were expensive and service was poor. And the flight was delayed.

We were late getting to Shanghai, and there was  a very long bus journey from the plane to the terminal building. For some of the journey we seemed to be on a – presumably dedicated – lane of the motorway.

Once decanted and with our lugagge, we were met by our local guide – the lovely and hyperactive Melody. She gave us a high-intensity briefing about the history of Shanghai as we hurtled to the Huangpu River.

Shanghai used to be a fishing village on the west bank of the river – Puxi. The east bank – Pudong – was developed firstly with European-style mansions and buildings, and more recently skyscrapers and, of course, the new airport. It was always an important port – the British effectively took it over to ease the opium trade, and blackmailed the old Chinese emperors into leaving it open for trade.

Once again we had expected an intimate river trip, but the boats were big, crowded, and there were loads of them. Still, the trip past the lit-up high-rises was stunning, including the ‘bottle-opener’ with its square hole at the top. Originally it had been designed as a round hole, but that made the sun shining through it to the ground look like the Japanese flag. Not a good idea.

Once again, we had a very comfortable hotel that we were destined hardly ever to be in.

The air quality wasn’t the best, so the sight-seeing – especially the view from the tower – was a bit curtailed.

We had been sceptical about the MagLev traing, but we went with it – and it was well worth it. Smooth as silk and a top speed of 431km/h. Melody asked what the closing speed would be as the two trains passed, and I, as the resident mathematician, came up with 862km/h. Melody complimented my maths skills and told me I was wrong.

It turns out that what Melody described as ‘our stupid government’ – gasps from the tour – built the tracks too close together, so the trains pass when one is speeding up and the other is slowing down. It’s still impressive. Melody told us to get our cameras ready as she counted down to the moment we would pass.

The other problem with the MagLev is that hardly anyone uses it. The normal train takes you right into the airport, while the MagLev involves a walk, and it’s expensive. So it’s used by some business people who have carry-on luggage only – and tourists.

We had time to walk along the Bund, which for all the world looks just like Glasgow’s Broomielaw used to, and has a replica of the Wall Street bull – as has Beijing. There was also a visit to the Yu Garden, with its carp ponds and its dragons, and its crowds.

The final high-pressure sale shopping experience was at the silk factory. We were on the verge of buying a complete set of silk sheets, pillow cases, and duvet – but came to our senses and just bought the duvet. We’ve since found out that everyone buys a duvet at the silk factory.

That day, as well as being our last day as a group, was my birthday, so the dinner at night was a bit special. A cake was produced, along with some Chinese tourist gimmicks – a lucky waving cat and a little boy getting his trousers pulled down by a dog – which now adorn our downstairs loo. The hat I was given is potentially much more useful though!

Back at the hotel there were drinks, and email addresses were swapped. Promises were made to look people up either on visits to Australia or the UK, and we’ll see what happens.

They were a great group of people, and helped enhance the trip. Amy was wonderful too. All in all, we’d never have got nearly so much out of it by travelling on our own.

But the next day was Hong Kong, and we would be on our own.

Shanghai at night – including the ‘bottle-opener’.


China part 3: the Yangtze and Chongqing

Travel Posted on Thu, December 05, 2019 15:54:41
The Three Gorges Dam

If we thought the journey to Xian was long, then the journey to meet our river boat at the Three Gorges Dam was an epic.

We flew to Wutan (by the way, the airports were all fantastic, and all the flights – including catering – excellent) and then had a six-hour minibus ride to the dam. This was really our first run through open countryside, and it felt a bit more ‘Chinese’. We stopped at the standard kind of service stations for toilets and snacks – including cucumber crips, a new favourite. These really were no different to the service stations at home. Just cleaner and safer. Most had chargers for electric vehicles.

We rendezvoused with someone on a street corner who supplied us with a ‘box meal’. This was sandwiches and crips. Amy handed out instant coffee.

We were tired when we reached the ship and boarded, and found ourselved almost on a standard cruise-ship scenario, with our cruise director – an American – trying to give us a briefing that we couldn’t hear, then breaking off as another group arrived, then starting again with a microphone while a group of Chinese competed very successfully with their own loud conversation.

We also got hit with the ‘upgrade your cabin’ sell. This was two-fold: upgrade your cabin to a slightly bigger one, and upgrade to the upstairs dining, WiFi and beverage package. We took the dining/WiFi/beverage package, but said we were happy with our cabin – which we hadn’t seen yet, but had been assured had a balcony, which was all we needed.

Belatedly, we got to bed, but not before noting that the toilet did not allow for flushing anything (except the obvious): used toilet paper had to go in the bin – which did not have a lid. Luckily, this was emptied regularly.

Today was spent roaming around the Three Gorges Dam, along with the inevitable hundreds of other people.

We’d heard about it before: the ecological damage, and the displacement of an entire city. With a ‘strong government’, of course, you don’t need any public enquiry. The dam is 2.3km long, 185m high, 18m wide at the top and 130m wide at the bottom. The reservoir it has created is 600km long. Mainly it’s a hydroelectric project, but also controls flooding downstream on the Yangtze.

It was spectacular, right enough, with huge ships coming through the locks and smaller ones getting lifted up (though they could have learned a trick from the Falkirk Wheel, I thought).

Back to the ship and into ‘cruise mode’, starting with happy hour and sitting on the top deck watching the walls of the gorges slide buy, as we realised we were upstream from the dam.

This was probably the first occasion we had time to really bond as a group. The Aussies from Brisbane, who gave me my first taste of Bundaberg Rum on the cruise, will be remembered for ever, and I’ll find a place in a novel for them.

We were decanted onto a smaller boat for a cruise along a tributary of the Yangtze, past villages and through narrow gorges. This got us closer to everything. 

We saw a boat picking up groups of children – obviously a ‘school bus’. Above us, in a very narrow deep part of the gorge, ran a motorway. Other huge concrete pillars were being built – we asked what for, and were told it was the rail line for the bullet train, part of the ongoing connectivity across China.

In some of the holes the rocky gorge walls, there were coffins. Apparently this was a thing in the local area, though the logistics of the whole funeral arrangements must have been horrendous – not to mention any risk assessment.

The next day we sailed into the city of Chongqing, with the usual vista of high-rise after high rise, all grey concrete here. By the shore, women were washing clothes in the river. Chongqing was home to 34 million people, one of the largest cities in the world. We’d never heard of it. One of our Aussies commented that this was the entire population of Australia, all in the one city. Because of the Dam, large container ships could get here, easing tarde.

This day was perhaps a ‘filler’. We were taken round a market, and then to a kindergarten: thirty three 3-year olds in one room, singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in Chinese, then taken out to a yard overlooked by high-rises for PE. After that we went to see an old man in the house he had been relocated to following the construction of the dam – demonstrating how happy he was with the whole issue. Finally we went to a big temple high on a hill about the city. Apart from a few tourists, the place was empty. And the huge statue of the Jade Emperor didn’t look anything like him!

On the ship we saw the snuff bottle artist at work, and of course we bought some: we’d known about this in advance, and had decided that these would be good presents for the family. We also had a bit of a history talk. Basically, they were giving all the typical ‘cruise ship’ experiences.

The evening on board ship was relaxing – this was our fourth night in the one place, after all. We had pre-dinner drinks, wine with the meal, a dancing show, and then relaxing outside with more drink and a Bundaberg, watching the world – and the big ships – go by.

It was an early start, with the normal cruise ship business of paying the bills. Check-in luggage had gone outside the cabins the night before, and we just had our carry-on bags.

Wiry old men carried our carry-on bags balanced on bamboo poles slung across their shoulders along the pontoon and up the wide flight of steps to where our bus would be. We tipped them £1 for their efforts, the recommended rate.

We drove through typical Chinese city madness to the zoo. The congestion seemed worse because we’d had those days out on deck with the countryside flowing past.

In the zoo, there were hundreds of people just shooting the breeze. The odd Tai Chi event was taking place. Young children gazed in wonder at us. We said ‘ni hao’ and mummies prompted them to say ‘hello’ and wave at us. Not for the first time, people took our pictures: sometimes they asked for selfies with the ‘big noses’, and me, arguably the biggest big nose of them all.

We were here for the pandas, of course, and we saw them. They really are idiotic animals, climbing along logs, pushing each other, falling off. But mainly they just sat eating bamboo, looking for all the world like bored actors dressed up. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a beer glass in one paw. But it was great to see them in person, so to speak.

From Chongqing we were catching the bullet train to Guilin, in south China. It took longer than the flight would have, but in theory we wouldn’t have that long check-in time. Except that we did, so a huge chunk of the day was taken up.

The railway station was like an airport, but with more seating. Finally we queued at the gate, and Amy chased away a Chinese man who, in the traditional style, cruised up to the head of the queue.

Needless to say, the train was comfortable – all the seats facing the one way – and smooth. A display gave the speed: top speed was 350km/h. The journey of around 1000km took under five hours. (A one-way second class ticket costs around £28.) We had a box meal on the trip. The train was full, and everyone on board was well behaved and quiet.

Embarking at Guilin, in southern China, and the heat and humidity hit us like a hot, damp pillow. I’ve been in steam rooms which were cooler and dryer.

On the drive to the hotel, we noted the landscape: sandstone sculpted into pillars by rain and wind, and covered with vegetation. This looked like China!

Our hotel was built round a vast open area, and was quite luxurious. We ate there, in a separate room away from other guests.

Chongqing


China part 2: Xi’an

Travel Posted on Tue, December 03, 2019 09:31:27
Xi’an at night

It was a long day’s travelling: Beijing airport then the 2-hr flight to Xian and the drive past mile after mile of high rises into Xian – another city of 24 million people or so.

That evening we had a walk round the city centre: everything lit up, with processions and floats, people playing on square arrays that lit in different colours, a crowd doing a kind of line-dancing to music. Again, everything was very, very busy and very, very safe: no drunks, just a family atmosphere.

Many people here, as elsewhere, wore face-masks. And we gradually realised that most were only carrying their phones: no handbags. Everything was done through WeChat: text, phne, pay bills.

Our hotel was quite luxurious: it seemed to be the way of it that the better the hotel the less time we had to enjoy it. This one had a quirk, though: glass doors in the bathroom. There was a glass panel between the bathroom and the bedroom, but it could be flicked to opaque with a switch. Not so the doors. Who designs this sort of thing?

After dinner we had a show of dancers, then collapsed into bed.

Terracotta Army day: another must-see, another ‘I can’t believe I’m really here’ moment.

First was a visit to the workshop where they make replicas of various sizes of the Terracotta army. We bought a kneeling archer of a suitcase-friendly size, and it now sits guarding our front door – so far with great success.

From here we were taken to the actual real thing. 

There was a huge tourist arrival area, with car parks (including chargers for electric vehicles) and shops and cafes. Amy, our guide, comes from Xian. She said this all used to be pomegranate fields, but they were swept away to make room for the tourists (and their money). Her family farmed pomegranates, and now live in one of the many high rises on the other side of the motorway. Her take on this was that over the past twenty years China had opened up and modernised. In order to do this, they needed ‘strong government’. Looking at it all from the chaos in the UK, I thought that this might just be a good idea.

We got the story of the Terracotta army, designed to protect the Emperor Qin Shi Huang to defend himself in the afterlife. What I hadn’t realised was that all the pieces were different, and if any artisan produced an inferior piece, he was executed. Got to keep the quality up, I suppose. But the site was discovered by a subsequent emperor, and the pieces all broken up and reburied, so that when the farmer rediscovered the site in modern times while ploughing his field, a great deal of work had to be done – and is still ongoing.

We thought we had maybe been pre-conditioned by the workshop and all the replicas. Not a bit of it. The scene when we entered that huge area – covered over like it was a vast sports arena – and saw trench after trench of clay figures, we were just gobsmacked. Yes they are all different, but also categorised: infantry, generals, and so on. Soldiers’ hair was never cut, but tied into a topknot which could be positioned left or right or centre, indicating rank.

We gazed and wondered at the sheer egotism of that emperor, and reflected how some modern day rulers would think it was probably a good idea.

The afternoon was a wander around the Muslim quarter and a walk along the top of the city wall. The Muslim quarter was a surprise, because at the same time in northern China, Muslims were being segregated and ‘re-educated’ to get their religion out of them. The rest of the world was being very cautious about condemning this, because the rest of the world has a bit of a thing about Mulims too.

We were warned not to buy – and if we did buy then definitely don’t eat – any food. Apart from sweets. So we bought some hard ginger sweets (and brought them home: they were fantastic!)

We had a dim sum dinner, with beer and wine, then a show. I now no longer want to eat dumplings. These were veggie, fish, and chicken. They were very nice, but that’s my lifetime entitlement used up, thanks very much.

The Terracotta Army – each one is different!


China part 1: arrival and Beijing

Travel Posted on Mon, December 02, 2019 10:46:09
Entrance to the forbidden city.

Why China? we were asked.

Well… We’ve been to New York, Boston, Alaska, Australia, Singapore, Canada, the Baltic, the Canaries, the Algarve, and Jura. But we wanted to do something a bit more exotic, a bit more adventurous, a bit more outside our comfort zone. China fitted the bill.

Not that we headed off with backpacks and a compass. Oh no. This was an organised, escorted tour, and we knew people who had done it, with the same company. We were briefed. We were prepared.

We knew Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp wouldn’t work in China (in fact, WhatsApp did send text only) so we downloaded WeChat and got the family to do the same, setting up a group so we could communicate and share pictures. As it turned out, any service involving Google didn’t work either, so we used Bing and Apple Maps when we were on Wi-Fi.

But we were still a bit on edge. The visa process didn’t help, though the people at the Chinese Visa Application Centre in Edinburgh were actually friendlier than the average US border guard. We managed to miss the whole business about getting vaccinations till the last minute, but our local practice sorted us out in time. Hep C, typhoid and tetanus, if you’re curious.

We were picked up and driven to Edinburgh airport. Then we flew to Heathrow, boarded the BA flight to Beijing, and we relaxed. The emergency exit seats in Economy Plus were comfy, the gin and tonic was tasty. And we were off on our ten hour flight, flicking through the videos avaiable on the tiny screen. Stan and Ollie, Modern Family, and something else I can’t remember because I slept through it.

And we landed in Beijing.

Beijing

All the signs were in English as well as Chinese, which removed the last of our fears. Some of them were blunt, though: we queued with our passports at the aisles signposted ‘Foreigners’. I’m sure the UK Border guys will pick up on this soon, the way things are going.

We got through security, and found Alex from our tour company holding up a sign with our names. Thirty minutes wait and another couple appeared out of the crowds and joined us. We piled into a minibus, were given a bottle of water each, and were driven to our hotel, staring out of the window the whole time, chatting nervously.

The roads were wide – effectively motorway the whole way in – with separated cycle lanes. The traffic was unbelievable: cars and vans everywhere, with no observable lane discipline, but it all kept moving and nobody seemed to collide with anyone else. The bike lanes were jammed with bikes, scooters, motorbikes, and three-wheelers. Often someone would come the other way. At junctions, perhaps waiting on an advisory red light, there were dozens of vehicles.

And there were people, and high-rise buildings, just everywhere. Twenty-four million people live here, Alex said.

We met our tour guide Amy – a young, smiling 30-year-old – at the hotel, and she took our passports and gave us our room keys and a time to meet for dinner. Till then we were left to our own devices.

Our hotel was in the CBD, it seemed, across from a branch of Tiffany. The hotel was open and grand. Our room was fine. We showered – noting warnings not to drink the water, or even brush our teeth in it – and stood looking out of the window at the buildings all around ours for a few minutes. Assured that we were really here, we headed out.

I had been worried about pollution, but the air here seemed no worse than London would be. It was very warm, but not insufferably humid. Conscious that we had to get back to the hotel at some point – their business card tucked safely in our wallet – we carefully walked up a few streets through the mass of people, checking the way back at every junction.

We realised quickly that the Chinese just shove through if you’re in their way, but not aggressively. They seem to have no word for ‘excuse me’. And they didn’t seem to know their own phrase for ‘thank you’ that we had learned – along with ‘hello’ – from the translator app. The traffic doesn’t say excuse me either: they use their horns, though it looked like they were mainly using them to warn of their presence rather than telling other bikes/scooters/cars to get out of the way.

After a while we turned back, found the hotel again – my wife has a fantastic sense of direction, luckily – and explored the shopping mall beside it. We were hungry, but unsure of where to go and what to eat. So we made our way back to the hotel and its cafe, with a picture book of dishes that we could point to. It was a wrap of some kind, with a juice of some kind (like milk with black beans at the bottom of the cup; we assumed they were edible).

An afternoon snooze, and down to meet tour guide Amy and most of the rest of the group. They’d all come on different flights from different places, some having to transfer at Hong Kong. In the end we were half-Australian (including three younger women who brought the average age down) and half UK (English apart from us).

We were led through the streets to a nearby restaurant and the first of our dining experiences, which all turned out to be very similar. We were split across two tables, each one round with a lazy-Susan. Drinks were ordered: water, Sprite, or beer – 10, 15, and 20 Yuan respectively. The beer was tasty and lagerish, and low alcohol. Already in place was a silver jug of green tea.

Then the food started arriving. Dishes were placed on the lazy-Susan and a description given. We helped ourselves to a suitably small amount onto each of our small plates, and spun the wheel. It was almost without exception delicious.

And we quickly became chopstick ninjas, even though they helpfully gave us a fork – just in case. The only problem was with rice, I found: it generally arrived late on in the meal anyway, so I tended to avoid it. Any soup also tended to arrive late on, and the occasional banana fritters that we were served could arrive at any time.

After dinner we went back to the hotel – the city was dark and very busy, but we felt extremely safe – wondering whether to get an early night in preparation for what was going to be a succession of early starts and active days, or go to the bar. It turned out the hotel didn’t have a bar, so that was that.

Breakfast was a choice of Western or Chinese. In fact, the Chinese breakfast buffet looked awfully like a Chinese lunch or dinner buffet, so we were cautious and went Western.

The whole group was now here. Our tour guide Amy gave us a briefing: stay together, do what you’re told!

We were picked up in our minibus and driven through those fantastically busy streets to the first big tourist sight. We noted that there were actually many open areas – and flowers and shrubs down the middle of the motorways – for the population. 

Tiananmen Square looked like it was still being cleared after the riots: it was mobbed, with some Western groups but mostly hundreds – maybe thousands – of Chinese tourists. We followed Alex and Amy, with our group’s little yellow flag held high, and looked in awe at our surroundings.

As we approached, we had our first casualty: one of the older Aussie ladies tripped just as Alex called ‘watch your step’ and went down like a felled tree, hitting her head. Luckily one of the younger Aussie ladies was a doctor, and another was a pharmacist, so temporary repairs were made.

Then we were in Tiananmen Square itself, with all those people.

Needless to say, the square was vast, with the entry to the Forbidden City along one edge, and that huge picture of Chairman Mao, and the Great Hall of the People along another side – all sights that we were used to seeing, but we were actually here. Soldiers stood rigidly under umbrellas in the sunshine and the heat. No one caused any hassle, apart from the shoving that we were already getting used to. 

Later on in the trip we asked Amy what she knew of the student riots in the square, which had occured at around the time of her birth (in Xian). She said she’d heard some things at University, and more when she travelled abroad with tour groups. She didn’t make any comment about the riots, but she often referred to China’s ‘strong government’.

We assembled for the traditional group photo, with the Forbidden City behind us and Chairman Mao looking over ours shoulders.

At round about this point we had a necessary first encounter with Chinese public toilets. We had been warned about this.

Chinese toilets are squat-style. Usually there is one Western cubicle out of half a dozen, recognisable by the queue outside it. The gents urinals were fine, so we were OK. The women… not so much. There was always a muttered discussion after a visit, and much grimacing. We carried wet wipes, little bottles of anti-bacterial hand wash, and toilet paper – this last being another omission from the cubicles. (The hotel bathrooms were invariably fine, though only one of the two toilet-roll holders was ever loaded. I do like a spare, I have to say. Don’t ask.)

There was then a visit through the Forbidden City, and a blast of Chinese history. I’d been aware for a long time that the West likes to start with the Rennaissance and pretty much pretend that nothing at all happened before then. But Chinese civilisation goes back way beyond that. I was aware of the maths, and inventions like rockets, but was unaware that they had their industrial revolution in the 13th Century when they mass-produced iron.

However, as in all cultures, the rulers had very much the best of it (and still do). The space and the opulence was remarkable, especially in comparison to the Hutongs, which we visited next.

Alex told us he was brought up in one: a 15 square foot room for the whole family, with cooking and toilets and washing shared in the central courtyard with all the other people who lived round it. We squeezed into a tiny room for lunch, and walked the narrow alleys between the squares, and wondered at it all.

However, Alex was at pains to point out that the changes in China were bringing millions out of poverty. Alex himself was part of the new middle classes: he owned two apartments. This contrasted rather with the past nine years in the UK, where the government seems to have been driving people into poverty.

We saw beggars from time to time. Some quietly asked for empty plastic bottles that they could presumably sell on to recycling centres, others were more in your face – often people with serious physical disabilities.

There was a compulsory rickshaw ride round the Hutongs and by the river, and then we were whisked to the Temple of Heaven, a large circular building set in a huge park.

That evening we had the first of our entertainments: a show giving the history of ninja. Entertaining stuff!

The Great Wall

An early start and quite a long drive, to the Great Wall to join hundreds of other tourists.

Like many of these ‘greatest sites’, there is the feeling of awe that you’re actually standing there beside it. It’s there, in front of you. You’ve seen all the photographs, but it’s actually right there. Just there! 

And it’s awesome.

We had time to climb up a little way: the steps are all different heights, which makes coming down as hard as going up. But there’s a handrail, possibly retro-fitted.

And there’s more history. I’d assumed that China built the wall to cut itself off, but that’s not true. The Wall was to protect against the tribes from the north. Elsewhere, China had the ‘silk roads’, on land and sea, to trade with the west.

After our amazing climb, and photographic documentation, we had a coffee and then on to the first of several high-pressure shopping experiences: the Jade factory.

We got the history of jade, and then were let loose in the shop. One or two of our tour were genuinely interested, and had planned to buy something. I hadn’t. Even when told how rare and valuable it is, I’m somehow not impressed. And the huge boats carved out of jade just looked hideous. But goodness, if you show interest then you’re followed around and shown everything. Luckily my wife was not interested in jade.

The afternoon was the Summer Palace, where the emperors went to escape the heat of the city. It’s basically a huge park, with a lake and an enormous covered walkway leading alongside it. There was a big marble boat at the end, and thousands of people all around. It was a favourite place for the Empress Dowager Cixi, aka the Dragon Lady. She got mentioned a lot while we were in Beijing. She sounded fearsome and seemed to get her own way all the time.

While waiting at the end of our visit to get picked up, our injured Aussie – white hair and a pale complexion – attracted the attention of some elderly Chinese men. They asked her age, and touched her arms. We looked so different to them! This happened again in other cities, particularly with young children who just stared at us. Parents encouraged them to say ‘hello’, and they smiled when we said ’ni hao’.

Unfortunately our Aussie lady fell over again, and this time there was a more serious hospital visit to get checked out.

At some point in the minibus, Amy told us that all Westerners tend to look alike to Chinese people. They refer to us as ‘big noses’, for obvious reasons. Personally, I seem to be amongst the biggest of the big noses, so here and there throughout the tour I got some attention.

On the way back into the city, we had a detour to look at the Bird’s Nest Stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics, which was one of the events that gave a major kickstart to China opening up to the West. We asked what it was used for now. Alex shrugged: nothing really. Ah well.

That evening we had a demonstration of how to eat Peking Duck: thin slices on thin pancakes with various sauces. Fajitas, more or less.

The show afterwards consisted of acrobats doing impossible things, including a double-jointed lady, who was just weird.

The Great Wall



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