Blog Image

Wanderings

Sort of a travel blog

Impressions of places I've visited. Not a comprehensive travel guide, more of a light-hearted review, with maybe some useful tips.

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 WiFi.

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.

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 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!

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 the 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



Australia

Travel Posted on Fri, June 17, 2016 15:18:54


As Douglas Adams would have said, Australia is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. So when we phoned Trailfinders to say we wanted to do Australia, there was a polite response and some amused laughter in the background. They asked us what we really wanted to see and do.

We had some fixed points. We wanted to go to Melbourne to see it and my wife’s second cousin, who hadn’t made it to our wedding and whose husband was ill. We wanted to drive up the Queensland coast. I wanted to go to Uluru (preferably with my wife). And we wanted to finish with a week in Sydney, staying with a friend who was working out there for a couple of years.

We put up a Facebook post asking friends to tell us their ‘must dos’ for Australia. This gave us enough to fill a gap year and more. We whittled it all down and went back to Trailfinders. They gave us a few days in Singapore on the way out and Dubai on the way back.

But this article is about Australia. Not a travelogue. No. Just impressions

Because Australia is big. Really big.

Melbourne is amazingly European, with trams and everything. The climate is sensible too. The highlight was the day going out Great Ocean Road to the ‘twelve apostles’ – sea stacks, of which there are about eight or so. Standing there gives the feel of the power of the southern ocean, and reminds you that the southern hemisphere is completely different from the northern one. The world is not symmetrical.

Brisbane was a quick stop, and the in-flight catering was a pie. Australians like pies. We did the free ferry up and down the river, had a delicious Malaysian meal, saw a covert drug deal, then picked up our hire car in the morning and drove down to Byron Bay. (Just to remind you, we were told by friends we had to visit all these places).

Byron Bay is just gorgeous, and full of hippies. We walked along by the beach and up to the lighthouse, and watched the surfers and saw whales and dolphins out in the ocean. We ate in a bar-restaurant near the beach, and wondered why things seemed to close down early. It was Sunday, though. And days later we found out there was a one-hour time change between Queensland and New South Wales.

From there we drove north. We had eight days to get to our final stop north of Cairns. Trailfinders had booked us into fairly standard budget hotels when we had an overnight on the way, and very nice hotels when we had two nights.

The hippies who couldn’t get a place in Byron Bay are all staying at Airlie Beach, having barbecues at night, playing guitars, smoking dope. It reminded me of my student days in Glasgow. Well, maybe not quite.

We went to Fraser Island on a super-sized eight-wheel-drive monster, driven by Drew who gave us a cheery commentary all day long. It’s a sand island, formed because of its location and built up over the years. The beach is the main highway, with speed limit signs and all. We saw a dead giant turtle. We swam in the freshwater lagoon. Drew made us a barbecue. We saw dolphins on the way back to Airlie Beach.

Just as fabulous was Noosa and the trip to the Whitsundays. We walked along Whitehaven beach and swam in crystal clear water. A party of Japanese businessmen came in on a seaplane.

For the rest of the drive we stayed in some rather odd towns: Gladstone and Townsville. These towns have huge coal trains and industrial harbours. And strange people looking at you from bars.

Driving was easy, with signs reminding you to take a rest. It got warmer and warmer as you went north (Australians think this is natural). The roads were lined with dead kangaroos (we didn’t ever see a live one in the wild). Banana plantations appeared. Local accents became impenetrable.

At Palm Beach, north of Cairns, the sea was mountainous. The lifeguards were on duty and said we were pretty crazy to go in for a swim. But we did, and it was wonderful. Walking past at night we saw the warning signs for crocs and sharks.

We flew to Uluru Resort (a time difference of one and a half hours: I still don’t know if this is clever or stupid). We walked to a viewpoint to look at the Rock in the distance, and drank 2.5 litres of water on the way. The heat of the sun was incredible. I felt that, if you wandered even a little way into that red desert, you’d just die.

They’ve created a resort as a circle of low-rise hotels round that viewpoint, some way away from the Rock, as is the new airport. Previously it looked like Las Vegas round the Rock, apparently.

We saw Uluru close up at sunset and at sunrise. We’ve all seen the photographs over the years, but nothing beats being there, looking at it. It’s full of holes. People still walk up it even though that’s frowned on. It’s no wonder that ancient peoples saw the rock as being sacred. It just sits there in a flat red desert, like the monolith from 2001. (Except it’s big long red and rough, not black and smooth and rectangular.) We had a barbecue under the stars, chatted to a young couple from Barcelona about our Scottish referendum and their refused Catalonian one.

A young girl took us into the darkness, and pointed her laser at the stars. There’s billions out there. I’ve never seen so many. Space looks big from here, really big.

And finally we got to Sydney. They like coffee in Sydney, and it’s all good. They are the worst city in the world for walking around looking at their phones and colliding with everyone. But they’re almost all polite and well-mannered and relaxed. The climate is just great. Tropical budgies visit the balcony in the morning.

We walked over the bridge, walked round the opera house, took a tourist ferry around the harbour and a helicopter trip all around the city. On the Saturday we took the ferry to Manly Beach along with half the city, and swam in the sea and had exotic pies for lunch.

I met up with my cousin, whom I saw very regularly as a teenager and last saw at his wedding in Stirling in 1969 before he emigrated. We had lunch and chatted about his life and my life. At moments like that, you can’t help thinking how little decisions – albeit brave decisions – can lead to such changes. I could have had his life, if I’d chosen that route. Would it have been better? Impossible to tell. I did love Sydney, though.

A big dinner at an outside table in the Sydney Café, cocktails at the Opera House bar, a swim in the Olympic pool looking up at the Harbour Bridge… And the airport and the A380 to Dubai.

We were asked later what the highlight of the Australian trip was. I said everything was a highlight, every day was something special. I could imagine living there. I know people who went there for a year or so and came back to the UK, and fervently wish they’d stayed over there. My wife downloaded the specs for some jobs that fitted her skills, and we speculated on what we might do.

But, in the end, it’s a hell of a long way from the UK. And their politicians have a strange-sounding agenda (Tony Abbott was prime minister at the time). Burning coal, polluting the Reef, cutting investment in renewables (all that sunshine, guys!). And an ironic anti-immigration policy. A bunch of old guys on the train back from the Blue Mountains were discussing a solution to the ‘Islam problem’: ‘Wait till they’re all in their mosque and then just bloody blow it up, mate. Get rid of them all.’ They were in the quiet coach too. Tsk tsk.

At least we saw signs of more sensitivity towards the Aboriginal peoples. (At Uluru Resort we were told we needed to show our room key to buy alcohol, to make sure the locals didn’t get their hands on it.)

And we’ve only just scratched the surface of Australia. There’s Perth and the whole west coast, Darwin and the north, Adelaide.

Australia is big. Really big. And it’s wonderful.



Norway

Travel Posted on Wed, May 04, 2016 10:31:34

Geiranger

After months at sea we finally spot land. Well, maybe thirty six hours. During the night there are lights close by, and we vow to keep the curtains shut. In the early light we’re easing down the long fjord, narrowing all the time, with vertical walls on either side, till we anchor near the tiny village at the head of one arm of the fjord, now called Geiranger.

Getting ashore is by tender, which is basically a lifeboat which fills itself with its own exhaust fumes so that any survivors from a sinking would be in further peril. Once moving, the exhaust is left behind to gradually fill up the valley. Too late, I remember that Geiranger is a mega-disaster waiting to happen: one day there will be a massive earth slip which will create a tsunami. In one direction it will swamp the village and any cruise ship there; in the other it will fan out across the North Sea, eventually destroying my home town. Once I realise that I wouldn’t be safe from this calamity even at home, I relax.

We board our coach, and our Italian guide introduces himself. Then we’re off, through the small town and up through a series of ever-tightening hairpin bends towards the summit of a mountain. I’ve driven this road before, twenty years ago. This time I am in awe of the view; last time I was gripping the wheel, eyes fixed a few feet in front of the Punto, fearing it was going to tip backwards as we took each bend. I swear I recognise patches of tarmac.

We turn onto a toll road for the last part of the journey. The locals have an annual race from the town to the top – 22km on foot or bike. The record on a bike is just under an hour. Stunned by that thought, I miss what he says about the runner’s best time, but I know it was ridiculous.

From the top we photograph like crazy before a mist rolls through; we elbow teams of highly trained Japanese photographers aside to get our snaps in. I photograph S, with the long fall to the fjord as a backdrop, and she photographs me, and we photograph ourselves, and we get someone to photograph us. We look round the small gift shop and side-step the souvenirs: hats, gloves, trolls and flags, with some pewter.

Then it’s back down the mountain, which is more terrifying than coming up, because you can see exactly where the bus will roll down to if the driver misses a bend. But it’s stunning, like God made Scotland as a scale model and then decided to build the real thing.

We stop at another viewpoint amongst cars and coaches, the one that every postcard of Geiranger is taken from, as well as the family photographs on my last trip. I photograph S, with the long fall to the fjord as a backdrop, and she photographs me, and we photograph ourselves, and we get someone to photograph us. Unusually, on this trip she’s lost her knack of picking people who know how to work an iPhone or a camera: one nice young man kept his finger on the white round symbol and shot off 45 identical pictures, none of which were any good (logically, of course, if one had been any good then would all have been). But she’s back on form this time: a young American lady is pinching and zooming like a pro.

Down in the town, we wander free. We have a huge ice cream which is delicious, and then a hot chocolate in a chocolate shop, which is delicious too. We explore the souvenir shops and avoid buying anything too obvious. Or, indeed, anything at all.

Then it’s back on the first available tender – well before the deadline of 4 o’clock for the final tender, oh yes – and are taken back to the ship. As well as the exhaust problem, this one has a faulty engine, so it’s a slow process.

But Geiranger is lovely. It’s a geological marvel that somehow has to be turned into a tourist trap without ruining what they’ve come for. And by and large it manages that, because physically there is tons of room, and Norwegians are relaxed and polite. I contrast this place with Vesuvius, which has a souvenir shop slap bang across the path leading to the summit, and tourist trappers who combine aggressive sales pitches with extreme laziness and lack of organisation. Norway’s better. They love their country, and they look after it, and they are happy to share it.

Svartisen Glacier

Leaving Geiranger, we sailed back up the fjord and round the corner – ‘headland’ I think they call it. At dawn the next day, we’re miles out to sea, which is disappointing: I’d hoped to be hugging the coast, in and out of islands.

Our resident natural historian explains that the inside passage (‘ooh, missus’) would be longer and slower. By evening, though, we do come within sight of the rocky islands along the coast. People gather on deck, and mobile phones and maps are consulted, because we are close to the Arctic Circle.

Aforementioned natural history man – who bears an uncanny resemblance to a former colleague, and who lives in Scotland – has explained the definition of the ‘arctic’: at least one day of non-setting sun. Usually this is accompanied by a particular climate, but Norway does not have this: its own arm of the gulf stream keeps it too warm.

We have some confusion this evening because our daily itinerary stated that we cross the circle after visiting the glacier, whereas NH-man knows we cross before. We wait, and then realise we’re travelling due east, so it will be some time before we cross. (I try to calculate it, mentally working out the circumference of the earth, dividing by four, then by sixty, to find how long one minute of latitude is, and so calculate time of arrival based on a speed of 15 knots or so. My calculation falls at the first hurdle: I can’t remember the radius of the earth. We did this with every second year class every year I was a maths teacher, and revised it with third and fourth year. Now it actually comes in handy, and I can’t bloody remember. I can hear ghosts of thousands of pupils mocking me.)

We eat in the restaurant on the ship called the “Yacht Club” that evening, which is exclusive in the sense that it’s a separate booking and you can only go there twice during your cruise. There’s a different menu too. The main advantage is that we have a view outside, so that we can spot when we cross the Arctic Circle – NH-man has said there’s a blue line painted on the water, but I’m pretty sure that’s a joke – and maybe even when we come up to the glacier. The captain tells us we’ve crossed the circle a few minutes before, and we raise a glass. (Two days later we get a certificate. In October we’ll be crossing the equator, leaving just one major line of latitude uncrossed.)

We go out on deck with everyone else to view the glacier and listen to NH-man’s commentary. I can honestly say I’ve seen a few glaciers in my time, but they never fail to fill me with awe: the colours, the scale, the fissures, the impact on the planet, the threat from climate change. We stand gazing. I photograph S, with the glacier as a backdrop, and she photographs me, and we photograph ourselves, and we get someone to photograph us – two attempts, because the first person didn’t realise that the glacier in the background was rather key to the composition; the second choice nails it, but S needs to brush up on her photographer-selection skills.

On the way back out from the glacier, we notice what I noticed on previous trips here, including catching a boat from Stavanger to Bergen: there are houses everywhere along the coast – just everywhere, including on tiny green islands. Almost all have some kind of boathouse too, and many are on patches of arable land. There are very, very few any distance away from the coast. I know that many of these are summer or weekend houses for Norwegians who live in the smoke. Leisure time is walking, hiking, skiing, boating, cycling, fishing, hunting. It’s rare to see a fat Norwegian.

But even knowing all that, it is still striking when you sail for hours, miles from any town, and there is still that near-continuous strip of housing, with trees behind stretching up to the sky. As we go further and further into the north, the landscape stays stubbornly lush.

Leknes, Lofoten Islands

We assume that the Lofoten Islands will be barren and bleak. The literature says that people live here, but we know it must be an exaggeration. But we wake up by a set of houses and a small port – and a church – and here it is.

We’ve selected a tour based on a single criterion: alcohol. We’re going to an ice bar (S is fed up with my chant ‘we’re going to a gay bar’). We board a coach for what turns out to be a very long drive to a very short experience, which turns out to be the correct ratio. Our tour guide is Italian (again: what is it with Italians that they come to the north of Norway to make a living?). We travel along lush farming communities with large, bright Norwegian houses, boats and 4x4s. Our guide complains about the price of fuel here: the equivalent of £1.60 a litre! There are better roads than in most of Scotland, and a long sweeping concrete bridge, and people everywhere. It’s all spread out. One couple had asked if they could be dropped off in the middle of town after the tour, and would just get a taxi back to the ship: our tour guide was very patient explaining to them how inappropriate this was.

The ice bar turns out to be an ice sculpture museum, which results in my camera lens fogging up for an hour afterwards. While wandering round in our fur ponchos at -4C – my fur collar looks like flowing grey hair in the flash photographs, causing S to shriek ‘Gandalf’ when she checks them – we admire the ice sculptures. Then we get our shot of strange liqueur in an ice glass inside a normal glass, and down it. Pretty much cough medicine. We circle round and grab another: yep, pretty bad. S gives me hers to finish, which I do. It’s a terrible drink.

Then it’s the long run back, round a different part of the island but still with houses strung out, boats in the water, and farms on the fertile land. The guide tells us they grow ‘potatoes, carrots, potatoes and carrots’; later he remembers they grow cabbage too.

It’s peaceful and clean. You could live your own life here, and be pretty self-sufficient if you knew how to fish and didn’t mind living off potatoes, carrots and cabbage. You’d have your own space, with even more space available if you wanted. However, the guide says that people are gathering into the towns on the islands: they’re less inclined to have their own space these days. Village schools are closing.

And it’s very far away from anywhere: your only way out is by boat. You live here because you were born here (or perhaps in Italy). I know a few people who would love to live this way. I can see the attractions, and I’m so glad I’ve visited, but I couldn’t live here.

Hammerfest

We’ve decided to do Hammerfest independently, because we read that the ship berths pretty much in the centre of town. On deck, as we ease between islands, it’s misty and cold, with a horrendous wind-chill. We wear everything as we document the approach to the town: the houses, the oil refinery with its flares, the Hurtigruten arriving.

We exit the ship and grab seats on the shuttle bus into the centre, because we’ve not quite parked in the centre of town even though we can see round the curve of the bay that it’s not far. The bus drops us outside the Polar Bear Centre. On the drive, and later on, we note the courtesy of drivers in Norway, and the way they defer to pedestrians. Canada was similar. Scotland isn’t.

We’re still wearing all our Arctic survival gear, because this is the Arctic and it was bloody cold out on deck earlier (on our semi-private forward deck, which only a few people know about). As we head up through the town to the zikk-zakk path up to the Sami experience and viewpoint, we realise the sun is beating down from a clear blue sky and we are sweltering. The jacket comes off, and the body-warmer and fleece are unzipped.

From the top we view the town, which had been completely destroyed towards the end of the war, with only one building remaining. It’s now a key location for the oil industry: helicopters fly overhead, and there’s a little airport somewhere nearby. I could imagine living here, with that airport as an escape route.

We view the Sami buildings and nearly crash a paid-for trip from the ship as it enters for a talk, but we back off. Instead, we head into town. We go to the Polar Bear Centre to see whether they have wifi: they don’t, but the library has. We head up, get our free individual code, and settle down to do a Facebook post and delete emails. S once again has a Hotmail problem: Microsoft thinks someone has stolen her phone and gone to Norway with it; they keep asking her to verify that it’s really her in Norway, which involves checking her activity and asking for a code to unlock her own emails. This is causing her stress, which is then transferred to me. I leave her shaking her iPhone and go back to the Polar Bear Centre. £18 seems reasonable for membership of the Polar Bear Society, and I seriously consider it before leaving it; I’m in Rotary, that’s enough.

Like many places in Norway, there’s the history of hunting and going on expeditions to the North Pole. They talk freely of hunting whales and seals, and killing reindeer. We do concede that this is all necessary, but you can almost touch the cultural divide.

We find a shop that sells us ice lollies – once S has sorted out her email problem – and meander back through the town to the ship, imagining life as a Norwegian here.

North Cape

On the same day as the Hammerfest trip, we go to Honningsvag with the sole purpose of the coach transfer to North Cape and the midnight sun. This feels like the Arctic at last: the air is icy and clean as it touches you. Buildings are cut into granite cliffs. The sky is grey and inhospitable, the sea black.

The road up there cuts across boggy moors, which all looks a bit like the road north from Ullapool. Mist descends and then recedes, heavy rain lashes us. We see a group of reindeer through the mist as we cling to the road, really feeling that we’re about to fall off the end of the world.

We stop outside the tourist centre, and go in. The place is mobbed. We’ve been told about the movie show, and Japanese tourists are rushing downstairs to the cinema, so we go with them. The super-widescreen film of the four seasons at North Cape is beautiful – sowing the seeds that we have to come back in winter – and the commentary in German from the old couple just behind us does not diminish the experience.

We head down the tunnel of exhibits and models showing local key historical events and out to the King’s View. We gaze in awe at what should be the Arctic twilight – this is early August – but is shades of grey. There’s a lightning show though, the best I’ve ever seen.

Then it’s upstairs and a glance at the huge shop, when S notices that the heavy rain has stopped. We head out to where dozens of people have gathered round the Globe signifying the most northerly point of mainland Europe. Except that there’s a peninsula a few miles west of us which is further north, and we’re not actually on the mainland. Hey ho: it beats John o’Groats by a country mile and then some.

We do the photography bit: this time it’s more complex because S wants a picture of us by the globe with no one else around. I point out that this is impossible, given the high volume of tourist activity around us. I force her to settle for selfies and photographs by willing tourists who have a basic working knowledge of iPhones when there are only a few other tourists around. Then the globe clears, and she gets her photographic wish. Pure luck.

She also gets the postcards. I’d said we’d have no time to buy, write and post postcards, but I was wrong. We shop for a few things, including said postcards – with short messages, they are stamped and posted to close family: ‘The furthest north we’ll ever be.’ I work out that in October we’ll be in Byron Bay, and look forward to easily-written postcards then.

As we get back on one of the coaches to head back to the ship, where we grab a midnight snack and a rum-and-hot-chocolate drink (which is a new favourite), we reflect that this excursion was quite expensive but just had to be done. And we did it. North Cape. The real Arctic. Tick.

Tromso

It’s the northernmost city in Europe, it’s got a university, and it’s got a brewery – I’ve done thorough tests of their products in the past, and I like them: clean Arctic lager.

This afternoon we cruise down the wide fjord – houses all along the shore as always, and maybe not quite the vertical walls of Geiranger – to the dock. Tromso is mainly on a long island in the fjord, and we can understand why this happened. Now it’s linked to either side by long high-arched bridges. We admire one, with a ship coming towards it from the other side, as we dock. An hour later we’re still admiring it as we seem to be making a hash of docking. The ship coming towards us has a huge frontage and a long flat rear, like an empty articulated lorry. It comes under the bridge and has to pass our stern as we sit in the water, like a very old lady trying to park. Meanwhile, behind us is today’s Hurtigruten, waiting to get past us to its dock; it gives three imperious blasts of its horn, which we later learn is normal but sounds to us like the maritime signal for ‘get out of the feckin’ way’.

Eventually we park and flood ashore, onto our tour bus. We will be visiting a museum and the cable car for a ride up to a scenic view. Sensibly, our guide – who, surprisingly, is not Italian – takes us to the cable car first. (We later learn that another tour was not so lucky: they do their ‘panoramic’ tour when the mountain is shrouded in mist, with their guide telling them all about things they can’t see.) From the top of the mountain we can see the whole city, both on the island and on the banks of the mainland. Every tour has someone from the ship, and we have NH-man; he takes in the view, but spends some time on his knees photographing flowers and plants – truly dedicated.

Finally we have to take the cable car down at the time dictated by our guide. We queue on the steep stairs and watch it come up and empty. The boy driver looks at us queuing, and calmly locks the car and walks away. He reappears twenty minutes later, and we finally descend. This isn’t Italian shambles, as experienced by us before; this is careful Norwegian work-patterns, where you take your tea break when it’s due.

The second part of our day is round to the museum in the main part of town. As we enter, we catch sight that there is wi-fi here, so the tour of the museum – wildlife and Sami history – is spent with one eye on our iPhones, deleting emails. In the museum shop we manage to find a couple of things to buy, but in truth we’re desperate: our home is awash with relics scavenged from previous Norwegian trips, and while S and I want things that are ours, it’s difficult to see what we sensibly buy; she resolves to formally adopt everything at home.

Our tour of the island continues, including a trip through the university and past the gardens. I notice again the courtesy of drivers, and the network of paths (for cycles and pedestrians) that are separated from the roads (by ditches). Our guide tells us that 9% of Norwegians have diagnosed depression because of the lack of daylight in the winter, and much research is carried out to alleviate this, including the use of lamps. I suggest I need to get one to counteract my winter SAD, but S is sceptical; she suggests I should simply get out more.

Most poignantly for me is what our guide tells us about the war. Firstly, he talks about the Tirpitz. I knew all about the German pocket battleships which helped terrorise the North Sea (though I can’t help but think that the U-boats must have been more efficient), and how they hid in ‘Norwegian fjords’. But Tirpitz was in this fjord, just over there, and was attacked and capsized, killing over 1000 men.

But also, the king and queen of Norway fled here from Oslo to try to establish a free Norway. It lasted a few dozen days, and they were evacuated. At that time, another British ship – HMS Glorious – was around here, helping with the evacuation. It was attacked and sunk, killing almost all of the men on board. One of them was my dad’s brother, Angus. I have Angus’ photograph albums, dropped off with my grandfather at Greenock as Glorious sailed from the Mediterranean to Norway. It documents his tours of duties in the Med and the Far East, and shows what a wonderful experience he had – till that fateful night. It gave me some kind of physical connection to those events, close in place but separated in time.

Back at the dock, we grab some quality shopping time, piling our basket like some kind of supermarket sweep, trying to get rid of our Kroner. Then it’s dinner – buffet tonight, only the two courses, and the show.

As we cruise away down the fjord, the memories are with me: that connection to my uncle, and the connections to previous visits here. All enhanced by the cocktail of the day.

Alesund

The day before Alesund was spent at sea. The sun split the sky, and it was taps-off for many of the Scots on board. Sunbeds covered the deck, and were covered with all sizes and shapes of people. We sunbathed as we crossed the Arctic Circle. Over breakfast we had talked to a couple who had done the Hurtigruten in January, ‘chasing the lights’, and we finally made up our minds that we had to do that, sometime. We read our books, we walked round the deck, and we went into the jacuzzi. Evening was the late dinner in the Yacht Club Restaurant. We photographed a stunning sunset, after which the sky never really got dark.

As evening came on, there was a distinct, slow roll of the ship. The captain warned us that things were going to be rough all night, and that lower decks would have their portholes deadlocked.

In actual fact, it wasn’t too bad but held some dangers. If you started walking across the cabin and the ship rolled that way, you could end up smashing into the windows. In the restaurant, one lady leaned to the side to counter the roll of the ship as she walked along; unfortunately, she was looking in the mirror, so she leaned the wrong way and nearly crashed into our table.

In the morning it was still bad, but we reached the relative tranquillity of the fjord. Unfortunately, it was still very windy. There was a storm coming up the North Sea, and another one about to follow it. Our trip to Alesund was cancelled.

Some passengers got annoyed, but we were relaxed: we had other things to do – gym and beauty treatments. Not for me obviously: I got on with documenting the trip. I may dump it all onto a USB stick and drop it overboard in a plastic bottle, just in case tomorrow proves to be as bad as they say. I’m trying to recall the details of the Poseidon Adventure.

It’s actually fine knowing that you’ve got time to reflect on the experiences, without new ones overwhelming your senses. Too often, when you return home, the memories slip away in the everyday pressures of normal life and work. So I’m finishing off this diary, and about to go through the photographs. Outside, the wind is whipping the tops of the waves into a white frenzy; the pilot boat has come alongside, and we watch the pilot jump across. Now we’re heading to the open sea for the long haul back to Leith.