Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Our China Journey Part I - Beijing

It was a pretty long flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing…. But we had decided that as long as we would be flying economy class for all of the interior domestic flights in China – we’d treat ourselves to at least the long to-and-from flights in business class. Our flight left KL in the mid-to-late afternoon - - was a little late taking-off – and that got us into the HUGE Beijing International Airport right around midnight…

For all of the hassle and rigmarole we had to go through to get our tourist visa for China… I must say that the process for getting through their passport-control/immigration was relatively painless…although the line was awfully long. They opened-up another line and we jumped into it…but all the Chinese people started laughing at us… it was the Chinese Only line!! One of the first things you notice about China…especially coming from Hyderabad (and India in general) – is the total lack of English on signs (with a few adverts being the exception) – and the general lack of English being spoken anywhere, period!!  The laughing folks were nice enough to let us back into the other line we had vacated…so all was well.

We got our bags…and – as is usual for a trip we book with Big Five Tours through our travel agent Eve Wertsch, there waiting for us was our driver and guide… with our names clearly written in English on a printed sign! Our guide for our time in Beijing was a very sweet young girl who spoke impeccable English…. She said that she had learned by taking English as a major in college…and from watching her favourite show: “The Big Bang Theory” !! Her name was “Ivie” – so many of the guides/drivers/etc. choose “English” names because their Chinese names are virtually impossible for we Westerners to pronounce. This part was funny, too… Ivie’s husband chose his English name “Michael” – from the character on the show “Prison Break” – Michael Scofield !!!  That happens to be one of my favourite shows of all time!!

Ivie was good. VERY good. She had been chosen as one of the English language ambassadors for the Beijing Olympics… and I’m sure she helped a lot of lost Americans and Brits find their way around the different venues. As you can tell…I really liked her… Amy did too.

It was just Beijing itself that she was not overly fond of!

First of all… you can read all about how cold it is…you can see the temperatures on the Weathr.com page… you can even think you remember what “cold” feels like from times you have gone skiing in the U.S. …. But after living in India for almost four years… neither of us was even slightly prepared for just how COLD “cold” was!!  We had both purchased new winter jackets - - but this was the kind of cold that knifed trough that kind of layer and cut you to the BONE!

We got to our hotel and it was pitch-black and we couldn’t see much…although we could see that the traffic flowed well and the streets were relatively spotless compared to India. Our hotel (The Grand Mercure near the center of everything) was nice enough… but it was beginning to show its age… a little “long in the tooth” as my mother would have said. But the bed was nice and we just needed to get some sleep…. Our first day in Beijing was to be “on your own” (we like that) – so we got to sleep in.

When we rose in the morning, and had some breakfast… after we watched a live college football bowl game (see photo album link below) we could see that there were several Starbucks on the map fairly close to where our hotel was… but we were not sure of directions. We asked one of the nice gentlemen at the front desk which was the closest one… and we were even more confused than before we asked!!

So--- we got brave and just decided to go walkabout. I will reference this several times in this blog… but the fact that I could do this trip and walk at all (with my bad needing-to-be-totally-replaced hip) was a complete miracle!! Anyway… we just started walking… and it was freezing!!!  We turned down a street that looked like it had a few local restaurants on it… a couple of them were just downright scary-looking… but we picked one that at least had some people sitting inside and there were photos of the food on the wall-menus - - so how bad could it be??

Well… it was pretty awful. We had some kind of hot-and-sour soup - - and for some reason I still can’t understand…Amy ordered this spicy shrimp dish….kind of a stew - even though the menu picture clearly showed the shrimps with heads-on and tails intact. She HATES that!! It was really hot…too spicy… hard to eat… totally unsatisfying. Well….live and learn.

We never did find the Starbucks…so we went back up to our room to look on the Internet to find another better place for dinner.

THIS is where we found out that the government of China highly regulates websites on the internet…. Google is limited… there is no Facebook (aaarrrrrrgggh!) – no YouTube…. Kind of shocking to a couple of Americans who love their freedom!

Anyway… it was decided that eating in the hotel Chinese restaurant was the wise choice…and it really was quite good… but man… they sure have some distasteful looking items on their menu!! The off to bed for our sleep before a full day of sightseeing in the morning!!

Here is a link to the photos we took on that very first day in Beijing:

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

China 2013 - A Stop in Kuala Lumpur

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY! IT'S 2014. We have been "At Home in Hyderabad" for 3-years and 7-months! I've got time to blog today. And maybe for the next several days. I came home from our yearly holiday trip (this year to China!) with a bit of a bug. I think I'm over the worst of it. It's no joke (I actually lost a dear friend to the bird-flu back in 2009)... but Amy and I kept saying "I hope I don't have the SARS!" Remember the SARS epidemic? Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome? Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in southern China caused an eventual 8,273 cases and 775 deaths reported in multiple countries with the majority of cases in Hong Kong...and it spread world-wide. Just yesterday, Saudi Arabia reported that the death-toll from a SARS-like virus has reached 57! New cases of the bird-flu are being reported in Hong Kong just this week. Scary stuff! 

Anyway... this year would conclude our holiday travels...and we juggled several possible destinations. Japan and Russia and Switzerland were all possibilities. But Amy said that she really wanted to see China...so that's the trip we booked. We cut back the duration and the cost of some of the hotels, added in a couple of days on the front-end to go to Kuala Lumpur to chill-out and decompress a little...and the trip was set!  As always...the best vacations are the ones booked by Eve Wertsch at Fugazi Travel in San Francisco!

The trip was almost over before it started...my bad hip was bothering me terribly... but thanks to some gentle counseling by Eve... I got talked into going and just doing what I could. I didn't have a clue how much I would be able to manage...but I decided to try. Amy agreed that I would try to do as much as I could possible do and I promised that I would not hold her back. We were just going to have to go and see how it played out! 

Amy Suzanne had taken some time to return to the U.S. at the end of November through the 8th of December to attend Deloitte University training... then take part in a variety of meetings in Los Angeles and San Francisco...and return to her first-love, riding her horses, in Santa Barbara... Unfortunately, this meant that she had her passport was with her...and we needed that in order to procure our tourist visas for China. This made our "window" to get the visas far-shorter than the experts said to allow to get them.... and the only place for us to go to get those visas was up in New Delhi. It was crunch-time up until the week before we left!

I won't go into all of the frustrating details about getting the visas... suffice it to say that it was a stressful time but all's well that ends well...we got our visas with one-day to spare. I was willing to catch another flight home to Hyderabad... but it turned out that it was not necessary. we got home from Delhi and immediately began to pack our bags!

Our journey began Thursday, the 19th of December, 2013... with a super-early morning flight (at 12:25 A.M.) on Malaysian Airlines from HYD to KUL ... we got stranded at the airport ... but we're seasoned-enough travelers now that we just got a cab...as it turned out ... when we got our refund for the pick-up-screw-up...we actually came out ahead. We stayed at the venerable Westin Hotel in Kuala Lumpur... a nice enough place... but beginning to show its age a little. The good part... it's right near some awesome shopping malls and they have the Westin Executive Club floors... no need to spend extra money for Diet Cokes and wine or snacks the whole time!

We slept most of the first day....I slept on the floor by choice....the westin may advertise their "Heavenly Beds" - but they are far-too soft for me and my bum-hip. Amy snuck out to walk around the HUGE Pavilion Mall....which was filled with the cheesiest Christmas decorations you ever saw! We caught a little dinner and called it a night...we're such party animals!!

The next day we had a lazy start (just what we intended.) On the way in to the hotel, the taxi (or "teksi" as they spell it in KL) driver told us that it had rained virtually the whole month of November. He didn't mention that it still rained every afternoon at about 2;00 P.M. We were going to catch the double-decker on/off bus tour...but we were no more than five-minutes into our walk to the bus-stop that the skies opened up.... we ducked into a hotel cafe that had no windows in the front...and just watched the rain POUR down for about an hour. Of course Amy went out in the rain (she loves to do that! - that's her in the photo above-left)...we had a couple of drinks and a little lunch...after the rain we both went and explored the Pavilion Mall.... it's huge.... but remember... even though Malaysia is a Muslim country...Christmas is still celebrated there with all of the pomp and circumstance one sees around the world. It's now the 20th of December and Christmas shopping had gotten to a frenzied state. 

Dinner in the hotel that night... and a peek at the Internet that told us that the KL Double-Decker Bus tour got less-than-five-star reviews.... we would pass and take a taxi the next day to this big Electronics Mall to get a memory-card for my camera. It never fails... I end up leaving the current card in my laptop when we leave on vacation!! We found a Starbucks attached to the mall...and a cool place for a light lunch. We had an afternoon flight out of KL to Beijing, China.... so we grabbed a teksi for 150 gringotts (that's what Amy calls the Malaysian Ringgits (MYR) - the national currency.

Not a bad wait in the Golden Lounge (the new Malaysian Airlines Business Class Lounge was under construction) .... and what turned-out to be my last chance to see Facebook for the next 11 days! There is no access to Facebook or any number of other websites that are blocked by the Chinese government. We would land in Beijing a little after midnight, China-time. Off we went to our next adventure.

Here are the links for our Facebook Photo Albums for our brief stay in Kuala Lumpur....

A Brief Stop in Kuala Lumpur

A Taste of Kuala Lumpur (Day Two)

Waiting Out The Rainstorm in KL 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sydney Finale... Now it's 2013! (Part Three of Three)

Hey! We made it! It's 2013! Happy New Year! Well....I'm almost eleven months late with that greeting... but better late than never, right?? We actually have a deadline now...and Amy Suzanne would like to see this blog completely up-to-date by the time we pack up and leave Hyderabad for good. In June of next year, when we will be closing this FANTASTIC, INCREDIBLE, AMAZING chapter of our lives... and we will be heading to...(wait for it...think ultimate culture shock!)...Salt Lake City, Utah!!

Time Out! I need to take a brief pause here. It is sometimes hard to believe that we actually left out home back in Pasadena, California on the 30th of May 2010. I wrote my first post in this blog on the 13th of March, 2010. We have now been in India for 3-years, 5-months and 26-days. The third extensions of our original Indian visas expire in just 157-days 8-hours and 30-minutes! I would not change a single minute of any of it!

Anyway, we have reached our final day of our Australian adventure. Our last day in Sydney was here...and it was to be probably the best New Year's Day...ever. We got another slow start (like most lazy New Year's Days)... we threw a few things into "organized piles of chaos" and had the suitcases on the floor...it was a pretty good start to just separate out our "cleans-from-our-dirties" and put all of our Australian souvenirs in one big stack on a couple of chairs. One thing was for certain...we were not going to spend the last day of our vacation lounging around the hotel room...it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside (just look at the sky in the photo of Amy in front of the Sydney Opera House, above!) ... so we decided to "go walkabout"!

No day on vacation can start without a trip to the local Starbucks as long as there's one available. I broke with tradition...normally, no matter how hot it is outside, I get a hot cup of coffee. Usually some sort of cinnamon or (in the U.S.) a pumpkin-spice latte. I never developed the taste for "iced coffee"...although Amy likes it quite a lot ... It was really much too hot this New Year's Day to have anything hot...so I had my very first "Mocha  Frappuccino®" ever ... and with whipped cream, no less! Is this what I have been missing all these years?? Damn! I have some serious catching up to do!!

We walked down the waterfront of Circular Quay and started some serious people-watching. We heard some wild music... a couple of street-musicians and pick-up bands playing the didgeridoo.. a wild man doing unicycle and fire-juggling tricks... an one very strange-looking local fellow dressed something like a cross between the Statue of Liberty and the Tin Woodsman from the Land of Oz. How appropriate. "Oz". Get it??We certainly weren't the only people to decide to go walking on the harbor waterfront that morning...I'm pretty sure all of the various cruise ships docked alongside the Quay had let their passengers off the boat for the day...and the ferry-boats taking people back and forth across the bay were packed...both going and coming from the docks.

From the area by the Opera House we had some incredible last views of the harbor...(see the photo album link, below) But nothing like what Amy was going to see later.

Sydney Walkabout...

You see, after much internal wrestling - she came to a decision. We ould definitely not be coming back this way ever again...so it was a "now-or-never" thing. She had decided, on her own, to make the famous "Sydney Bridge Climb" on New Year's Night! Now for more reasons than I can list..this is something that I would never do...my incredible fear of heights being the most serious one. But she had made up her mind...and that's what she wanted to do!  She made her reservations and we got back to the hotel room to have a little rest before her big climb!

After the sun went down... she got pretty nervous...but she was really excited. There was no chance she was going to walk over to the entrance to the bridge alone....I went along for moral-support. Inside the building, there was a snack-shop and a place to buy t-shits and pictures and video mementos of "your big climb".... After a big hug (and me telling her how proud I was of her!)...off she went to the upstairs holding area where everybody gets a jumpsuit (come to think of it...that's a terrible way to describe the overalls they give you for the climb...a "jump" suit... Oh, well. They gave her (and everybody on the climb) a safety harness and a breathalyzer test ....

I watched from down below until she actually entered the superstructure of the bridge.

She did it. She did the Bridge Climb!! She says it was a little windy, a little scary, definitely a good workout,,,and that he views were...unbelievable!

She was just elated when she came back to the hotel.  They gave her a little flash-drive with her photos on it...and she couldn't wait to plug it in and show me. Yes...I was very proud of her...but so glad I didn't even consider trying to do it. There was no way I could have done what she did!

Our Australian adventure had truly come to a climactic end! We would leave in the morning for the airport and our first-leg flight back home through Kuala Lumpur and back Home to Hyderabad.

We leave you with some of the photos from Amy's bridge climb. I hope you have enjoyed this ten-part series of posts on our Aussie Adventure. Honestly...I never thought it would take ten-full-chapters to tell the tales...but it was truly a trip for the ages!! Thanks for reading!

Sydney Skyline

Amy (best photo!)

Amy at the top!!

Far above our hotel room!

Now that's a look I understand!