Around the World in 50 days - 2013
"It is time", we muttered a year or so ago, "to visit Ora in Canada." She is the Innkeeper's sister and lives in Hope with her husband Pieter. Not "hopefully", but in the town Hope not awfully far from Vancouver. The problem, of course, is that Vancouver is literally halfway around the world from us. Bloody far, in other words. But, Anna has always had a yen for an Alaskan cruise. Maybe we can combine that with the familial visit.....
And so it started. And grew and grew. Tickets are bought, research done, visas obtained. Here is our itinerary: Depart 16 April Johannesburg to New York. Spend 3 days in New York New York to Salt Lake City. Spend 3 weeks driving to San Francisco through deserts and stuff. Look at redwoods along the way. San Francisco to Vancouver. Spend 10 days visiting Ora and Pieter and explore BC a bit. Cruise to Anchorage. Spend 3 days in Seward exploring. Anchorage to Beijing. One night only en route. Beijing to Kunming. Explore Yunnan Province for 10 days by car. Lijiang to Chengdu to see the pandas. Chengdu to Johannesburg over Hong Kong. back on 9 June.
The flights are all one booking with the Star Alliance Around the World ticket. Great value for money. It allows you 15 stops as long as you keep flying in the same direction. Why only x days in Y, you may well ask. The difficulty was deciding what to leave out, given our predetermined limit of 60 days. In any event, the die is cast and we will go with the itinerary we have.
We will, of course, tell you all about it on this blog, so stay tuned.
The Foot Anna and the Innkeeper have wonky feet, as those who followed us through France knows. We have been trying to get Anna's feet sorted - she had plantar fasciitis, a real pain in the behind. And in the foot. Long after the plantar was supposed to have healed, she still suffered from severe pain in her right foot. In the end she insisted on having an MR scan done and it turned out that she has a stress fracture in her right foot. That is doctorspeak for a broken bone. We could, had this been found earlier, had it healed months ago. Now she had 5 weeks until we depart. She has the mutters, because she has to sit. With this on the foot: When she walks, she has to use crutches: So, the Innkeeper does the fetching and the Innkeeping and the cooking while grimly trying to keep Anna from leaping up and doing stuff. Did I mention that she has the mutters? We are, however, of good cheer . Two and a half weeks gone and two and a half to go. Time flies. We set off We are paranoid about missing flights. (He is – enough for both of us!) As a result, we always depart for Johannesburg the day before our international flight. Besides, we wanted to use the opportunity to visit Ma Marietjie in Potchefstroom. She is my mother in law courtesy of Lenie, my late wife. We dedicate this blog entry to her – a tribute to a formidable woman. Ma Marietjie turned 96 this year. She is a dedicated and loving mother, mother in law, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Her life and deeds stand as a shining example to all who know her. She is concerned about those around her and you never hear a lament. When I told her that I had met Anna, she cried. Of joy that I had found a new mate. Truly an extraordinary, compassionate human being that has made my life richer for being there. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, I wish, on my best days, that I could be more like her. After the visit to Potch, we had a splendid lunch with Marietjie (the younger version - my daughter) and her colleagues. Well reinforced for the 15 hour flight, we were dropped off at O.R.Tambo. The flight went surprisingly quickly. We slept reasonably well, Anna's foot emerged in good shape and so we wend our way to immigration and customs at Kennedy Airport. Whence we emerged more than two hours later, considerably less cheerful than before. Nevertheless, we were here, our holiday had started and we were soon of good cheer. (The Innkeeper queued. I sat, people-watched and rejoined him towards queue end). NY City We were somewhat tired after the standing in line thing at JFK. Our hostelry in Manhatten is Incentra Village Guest House. ("in the center of the village" - geddit? geddit?). Our room is the green door bottom right, right off the street. Check-in time 3pm. So, the idea was to drop the luggage and then go exploring; a prospect that at this stage we did not relish. We wanted lunch and a nap. It turned out that I had booked three nights from Tuesday, not Wednesday. We were expected to check in at the time we were somewhere over the Atlantic. Merde! The upside was that our room was ready. Reasonable digs. (Dirty, though. Parts had not been cleaned since Lincoln was President). Two options: find accommodation somewhere for Friday night or move the flight to Salt Lake City forward a day. We'll decide later. In the meantime, we hied ourselves to Times Square. We needed a brunch of sorts and at least the bright lights would keep us awake. We found an eatery called Ruby Tuesday just off Times Square. What drew us was the promise of a lumpy crab cake. I assumed that the "lumpy" referred to the type of crab, not the consistency of the cake. We ordered two. accompanied by, they promised, a salad. Or, if we preferred, pea soup. Pea soup and crab just did not ring our bells, so the salad was it. In short order, a waiting type person plonked this down in front of us: That, apparently was the salad. Piles of raw veggies with a murky vinaigrette. Enough to feed 4 Innkeepers and two parakeets. Then came the crab cake. With a pinkish tangy sauce. Thankfully no lumps. The crab was actually pretty good. The salad, well..... With a beer and a coffee the bill came to a handy $65. I felt lumpy. The afternoon sort of drifted past with no real highlights. We had to take a nap. For dinner the Jane Inn right across the road seemed a good bet. Anna had pan-grilled chicken (pronounced good) and the Innkeeper could not resist trying their meat loaf: The size of the chicken dish was obviously constrained by the size of the half chicken, but the meatloaf came in US portion size - around 500g. This was by far the best meatloaf I have ever had. Juicy, loose in texture, with the odd bit of carrot and onion. Beef and some pork. We had a bottle of Californian Pinot Noir. Then came the bill. My eyes watered. $95. So to bed, secure in the knowledge that we made our contribution to the financial wellbeing of the good folk at the Jane Inn. We awoke refreshed and more or less on NY time. The day was murky. Breakfast at a small cafe around the corner, where the only noteworthy aspect of the food was that my two poached eggs hid a pile of chopped carrot. We wend our way to the Staten Island Ferry which departs from the bottom of Manhattan to Staten Island every 30mins. Damn good value - it is free. Along the way we had a good view of Lady Liberty and the Manhattan skyline The NY Botanical Gardens promised a great exhibition of Orchids and thence we went. Via the underground it was a 55 minute trip to the Bronx. The Bronx is not the most salubrious borough of NY. We had to walk for quite a distance past areas like this: Arriving at the Gardens, I felt an urge to demonstrate that we Africans do not heed silly regulations..... The Botanical Gardens were resplendent with trees in bloom - a truly magnificent sight. Inside the conservatorium was a riot of orchids: We had a forgettable lunch at the gardens and got back into Manhattan around 5pm. Walking along 8th ave, we passed these three cars each occupied by people clearly living in them. Mattresses, a dog, parrafin stove, the works. Wonder where they wee...... So, to dinner. At Smorgas. Of Scandinavian inclination. The menu was replete with herring, gravad lax and herring. We opted, more conventionally, for black sea bass with aragula and citrus (me) and mussels with garlic and Carlsberg beer broth (Anna). My bass looked fairly conventional and was ok. Anna's mussels was a humungous portion and came with fries for five The mussels were great (said Anna) and I concurred, having had to help her get rid of a few. Washed down with an Argentinian Merlot, not a bad meal. Until we got the bill. Anna asked for laventel and balsem kopiva. I will not reveal the amount, but it was north of our previous high for the trip. Outrageously expensive for what we got. Oh, all ye back home, hasten to Serendipity and grab their arms off at R350 per person.... On the way home, we passed a newsseller. We decided to bring our flight to Salt Lake City forward rather than find accommodation for one more night. Anna's foot needs a rest after today, the weather for NY tomorrow is dicey and the hassle of checking out, stashing the luggage, checking in, swung the vote. So we go west in the morn. Via Chicago. We will, dear readers, report further once we get to Utah. Off to Utah We left New York City without regrets. We did not scrape the surface of the Big Apple. In fact, we did not even scrape the surface of the surface. One extra day would not, we thought, had made much of a difference. Maybe we are just too old and crusty, but the place did not float our boat. I enjoyed my three earlier visits, but then, I was but a boy. We might have got more from our brief visit were we more mobile. Be that as it may, we spent Friday travelling. The first part went smoothly. La Guardia (what a crappy airport!) to Chicago. At security we were scanned and scrutinised before boarding. You had to take off your shoes and belt. Then enter a scanning cubicle and told to clasp your hands above your head. You do that, and your trousers fall down (remember - no belt). Alarmed, you drop your hands to pull them up, only to be scolded by the security guys - "Sir! Please put your hands above your head!" Ok, you do so, only to have your trews fall down again. In the end I sort of stuck my tummy out, holding the jeans up long enough for the scanning to be done. They can probably make a fortune by having a doctor look at the scans and handing out a diagnosis while they are at it. "No prohibited substances, sir, but you have a small cyst on your colon." I was worried about the size of O'Hare airport at Chicago, and arranged a wheelchair for Anna. She was wheeled a short distance and we were then loaded on a cart. This was great! We were whisked through the throngs toiling along the endless passages. Would have taken us forever to get to where our plane to Salt Lake City was due to depart. (I think I will keep the moonboot for future use. This was great!) So far so good. Then we hit a snag. The aircraft was late arriving, and when it did, rather than the expected 66 seater, it was a 50 seater. So, 16 people had to be disposed of. In one way or the other. The airline offered bribes to get people to voluntarily give up their seats and in the end got their 16 seats by offering $1300 per seat. We were tempted, were it not for all sorts of complications, not the least of which was that, even if you would no longer be on the plane, you baggage would travel to Salt Lake City and be held there. The weather was socking in - small flurries of snow. We sat tight. In the end we departed 3 hours late. Salt Lake City was rainy and cloudy. Some snow still on the surrounding mountains. We found a room at the Marriott in downtown Salt Lake City and had an entirely forgettable meal in the hotel. This morning we pitched at the Alamo Rental Car counter at the airport to pick up our car. To our horror, the Alamo people were not happy with our international driver's licences. They wanted our South African ones. This has never happened to us and of course the S.A. licences are in Wilderness. We tried everything, but could not move the Alamos. Dejected, and I mean dejected, we sat down. Get the licences couriered to us on Monday? That would mean that we are stuck in SLC for probably 5 days. While waiting, fly somewhere else? In the end Anna thought that we should try the other agencies. We went to Budget and, thankfully, they were happy to accept the International licences. Disaster averted. At a price - the Budget rate is more than twice what we would have paid Alamo. My eyes watered. Going to fetch our car, we had to pass the Alamo counter. I could not resist giving them a cheery wave, holding the car keys. After a bout of shopping to pick up some essentials such as wine glasses, wine, nuts and hats (more about les chapeaux later), we set off for the Utah hinterland. First stop Moab, some 375Km from SLC. This is where the first scenic desert parks and so can be found. Showy mountain scenery at first gradually gave way to desert stuff. Some parts were rather dilapidated - not the nature parts, but where humans had hung out. Where US flags were flown, they were invariably at half mast for the Boston bombings. We got to Moab and found ourselves a room for two nights at the Adventure Inn. Dinner was at the Broken Oar. A rustic eatery with an emphasis on smoked grilled flesh. Anna found trout on the menu and tore into it with relish. "The best dish so far in the US", she said. I could not resist the slow smoked and barbequed brisket. Excellent. Served with crisp sweet potato fries and homemade baked beans in a BBQ sauce. With both dishes we were offered a salad. Which we politely declined. We will write more about Moab tomorrow. For the moment, we need to test the wine glasses and Anna wants to do her repack thing which will let us leave the majority of our baggage, and certainly the heavy cases in the car. Utah We decided that we need hats. The desert sun and all, you know. When stocking up on vital survival basics, such as peanuts, at the Walmart in Salt Lake City, we kept an eye out for hats. Anna found a most fetching white bonnet The Innkeeper, however, was either going to look ridiculous in a cowboy hat or silly in a cap. He went for the cap. Breakfast at the Eclectic Cafe was interesting. We both had eggs with hash brows and toast. Mine came with bacon. This was the smallest breakfast we could find. The guy at the table next to us opted for the breakfast burrito. It was an object the colour of an army blanket, and the size of the blanket rolled up. It contained two eggs, brown rice, pintos (?), cheese, salsa and bacon. Proudly advertised to weigh in at one pound. How does one attempt to eat this? We watched with interest. He simply stuffed it in and chomped. A horrendous sight. Horrendous, I tell you. Moab is basically a one street town with about 25 hostelries and 45 eateries, most strung along main street. It owes its existence to the surrounding landscape. Two National Parks are located just to the north:- Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. We went to Arches first. It is smallish - probably about 50km of road. It is spectacular. We have never experienced such a unique landscape. What used to be a plateau was weathered down over millions of years to leave strange, almost surreal structures - almost like the ruins of buildings wrought by giants. Breathtaking. Magnificent. We are sorry that the best we can do to share the grandeur with you are a few pics. Later in the day we went to Canyonlands. Not as spectacular as Arches, partly because you need to hike to really get the great views. This is an area where the Colorado river carved a deep crevasse into the landscape. It is difficult to convey how deeply these landscapes affected us. We discussed the idea of using the trip to search for the GREAT AMERICAN BURGER. Johan wants to know why no burger has made the blog. The reason is simple. Standard fare on the menus around here is If you order anything less, you get looked at askance. as if you are a threat to the American Way of Life. So, Anna has decreed that she prefers me in my present shape, not 10kg heavier. So the idea got canned. Dinner tonight will be pizza - it is Sunday night and even if we cannot watch Strictly Come Dancing, we can eat the pizza. So there. Mexican Hat The morning of our departure from Moab started with breakfast at the Sweet Things Bakery and Bistro. We ordered eggs easy over. The lady behind the counter said that they were unable to fry eggs because they did not bring the frying pan. Ok. So make that scrambled. With bacon and a homemade biscuit (that is a scone to all of us outside the US) covered in sausage gravy. (mine without the gravy, of course. A wise decision, it turned out). It came: On a plastic plate with bendy plastic knives and forks. The gravy was a goey bechamel with lumps. The lumps turned out to be bits of sausage meat. The bacon was ok. The daytime temperature hovered around 10C in Salt Lake City and it has increased as we drove south. In Moab around 16C and we expect low 20's today. Off in the direction of Mexican Hat. We wanted to call in at the natural Bridges National Park to see the natural bridges. For parts of the road we may as well have been in the Free State And for other parts we clearly were not. The bridges thing was ok. A deep gorge with holes in the wall. From here we took a shortcut to Mexican Hat along what was ominously described by roadside signs as a road that would deteriorate into a dangerous gravel road. Hah! We sneer at dangerous gravel roads. This was a most serendipitous decision, for around a bend of the gravel road, this vista unfolded: This was the Valley of the Gods, an incredible expanse of valley dotted here and there with buttes. We were fairly high up and the sheer scale took our breath away. This ranked right up there with any landscape we had ever seen. It is impossible to convey the to you the magnificence of the scenery, but this is the best we could do. (I just stood and marvelled. I dumstruck - this was beyond doubt the greatest natural wonder I had ever seen. ) We descended the winding road in silence. There is not much one can say in the face of such beauty. Some while later we took a turn off to Goose Neck State Park. The park exists around these twists in the Colorado river: A mobile home (or RV as us locals call them) was parked nearby. We saw plenty of them along the road. Just outside Mexican Hat we were stopped by a state trooper. He would only allow us to proceed when we assured him that we intend overnighting in Mexican Hat. Apparently the road beyond the town was closed for security reasons. Intriguing. We hope whatever is occupying their attention is out of the way tomorrow when we want to drive through Monument valley on our way to the Grand canyon. Mexican Hat is the original one horse town. Most everything was shuttered – closed down. We called at the only motel in town but were not impressed. They also operate the only eatery – the Swinging Steak House. I peered in and decided that we will not eat there. Flies and a smell. Outside town is the San Juan Trading Post and Inn. The guy at reception at the Inn said that the yurt was free. I said " Good heavens, man, alert the police." No, this was their Mongol tent-like room. Located rather incongruously in town behind the church. Exactly what we had been looking forward to on our USA road trip. We took the yurt. When there are no alternatives, any yurt will do, I always say. Very comfortably furnished. Dinner tonight will be catch as catch can. Be damned if I am going to subject us to the swinging steak. We have in our cool bag rolls, serrano ham, tomato, pepperoni, Montery Jack cheese, grapes, strawberries. And, of course, peanuts. And, of course, 8 bottles of wine. And I bought a can of Miller's beer at the petrol station. We can recommend sleeping in a yurt. One furnished in modern style, of course. No yak skins and stuff. Ours was pretty good. We even had a hole in the ceiling. In case you want to make a fire. And roast a haunch of camel. No, wait, it is covered with perspex. So no yak roasting tonight. Damn. We also had a pretty good view. For those doubters out there, here is a pic of the Swinging Steak place Today our destination was the Grand Canyon. En route we passed through Monument Valley. This is truly getting difficult to handle. More superlatives, Wow!s and goeie moer!s. We stopped for a cup of coffee in Tuba City . As desolate a place as you will encounter anywhere. Nothing green anywhere, just sand and earth. The countryside after Monument Valley was unremarkable. The sand gave way to short, stunted bushes interspersed, as we approached Grand Canyon Village, with pines. There are five or so hostelries perched on the side of the canyon. The first two were full. I asked whether, by chance, their yurt is available. No luck. We eventually found accommodation for two nights and then explored. Take everything you have every read or seen about the Grand Canyon and multiply it by 10. The grandeur of this place is awesome. It sits there, millions of years in the making, majestic and overpowering. We had a forgettable meal in the cafeteria. Food here on the rim of the Grand Canyon is dodgy. There is supposed to be a fine dining restaurant somewhere, but the reviews are unanimous in their condemnation. We will survive. At least we have some wine. And, of course, the view. Bryce We took a last look at the canyon and took off for Bryce Canyon, all of 560km to the north. The Grand Canyon was great. Spectacular. The village is really, really crowded. Driving around trying to find a parking spot close to anything, even your hotel room, is a common activity. At any given moment, half the visitors are enjoying the view and the other half are looking for parking. We met a family who had been driving around for 4 days, sending the kids off to buy water and food. Seriously, you are very lucky to park anywhere close to the rim. Not that it matters much. Some of the best views of the canyon can be had along the entrance road. Crowd free, too. The road took us past cliffs it wound along the western edge of Monument Valley. Depending on your viewpoint, either lots of cliffs of one long, humungous cliff. We drove with this along the right-hand side for all of 120Km. The countryside really made for easy driving - there was mostly something to see. We crossed the Colorado river - even here, is was carving its mark into the soft rock: Near a town called Cliff Dweller, we found the remains of... wait for it: cliff dwellings. The towns along the way were all small towns. As in tiny. Jacob Lake, Muddy Creek, Vermillion Cliffs.... All had two things in common: the main road becomes the main street and widens to two lanes each way, right through the middle of town. The second is that they all share a tawdriness. Rubbish and dirt. And this right on main street. (I suppose that this is the back country and is bound to be a bit rough. All these places are probably populated with good citizens. It is just way more slummy that we would have imagined.) An interesting store in Fredonia caught our eye. Speaks for the priorities of the good folk of Fredonia. . At last we approached Bryce Canyon. The upright formations are called "hoodoos". We came to Bryce to see the hoodoos, so pay attention: Wikipedia says "A hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin. Hoodoos, which can range from 5-150 feet tall (1.5-45 meters), typically consist of relatively soft rock topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements". We found accommodation for two nights at the Best Western Ruby Inn just outside the entrance to Bryce. We hope to scoot into the park shortly after sunrise and again late in the afternoon to catch what we have been told are the hoodoos at their best. When we arrived, very light snow was falling, but the forecast is for sunshine. Dinner was at the Inn's restaurant, a vast place with at least 300 seats. A queue had formed by the time we got there. These guys have a very slick operation. We timed them. From the time a table gets up until a busboy pitches to clear: 10 seconds Time to clear: 20 seconds. From the time the busboy signals all clear to when new diners sit down: 15 seconds. Formidable. I had a flat iron steak, a cut from the shoulder of the beef. Good to very good. Accompanied with a baked potato and carrots. I chose the flat iron because all the other cuts were 12 ounces plus. Anna had trout with the same accompaniments. (Sort of ok) We gave the pud a miss. Sample : Tomorrow we will explore Bryce Canyon. An hopefully get dazzling pics. O yes, we had a Californian Pinot Noir that we bought at a store for $10. very good. $5 corkage. We were up at the crack of dawn. On the theory that, if you want to catch a hoodoo, the best time must be when they still have sleep in the eyes. The Ruby Inn is fortunately close to the park, so we could quickly scoff some scrambled eggs. And bacon (Yes, me too. I quite like crispy bacon, not too heavily smoked). And hash brown potatoes. This seems to be the standard fare in hotel buffets. There was a pile of limp french toast sitting disconsolately next to a huge bowl of maple syrup, but other than bestowing them a pitying glance, we passed. Somewhere on this trip we will find a truly innovative breakfast offering. Not here, though. Just across the road from the hotel is a little row of faux Western shops. In any event, off we went, hoodoo hunting. Not a difficult pursuit. There are plenty of them around. The road in the park runs along the rim of the canyon with viewpoints aplenty. We drove to the end and then did a leisurely tour back. At the highest point it was cold - patches of snow still lying around here and there. The Innkeeper a-hunting: And this is what we found. Looks like a bunch of meerkats! Bloody big meerkats - these things all of 30 meters high. (God, when He created the earth, must have known what time will create for us to enjoy. The thrill of seeing this scenery comes partly from the unexpectedness - you have no frame of reference for what you are about to see. ) The Americans are arrogantly proud of their country. When you encounter landscapes such as these, the arrogance can be understood. There are other countries, our own included, with splendid scenery. None, though, with the astonishing uniqueness and variety packed into a few state parks. It is no wonder that they seem to want to upscale everything. From food portions to beer cans. Surrounded as they are in many places by a vastness that defies description. For dinner tonight we can only call in on the hotel's restaurant. Two days ago, at the general store at the Grand Canyon, we came across a bottle of Fat Bastard Pinot Noir. Which we snapped up and tried tonight. Anna was just sitting there, looking pretty. She had battered shrimps. Ok. If the rest of the plate looks familiar, it is because the sides were identical to last night. I made the mistake of ordering a burger. Egad! What a horrible mess. The green stuff in the foreground are gherkins. Or rather family of gherkins. Far off family. Great-great nephew. Terrible. The bunlike thing on the right contained only the patty. Which was dry like a hockey puck. The burger gods are going to punish whoever put this thing together. The fries were ok. The limp lettuce leaf under the gherkin-like things was not. Ah well. The wine was great. As was the company. Zion Today we head towards Zion National Park. We have high expectations - the park, unlike most others, allows you to drive along the floor of the valley. Or canyon. Looking up, instead of down. Seems to be a more cheerful thing to do, looking up. Before leaving Bryce, we filled the car with gasoline. Self service and a very high tech petrol pump. You swipe your card, select the grade of gas and start pumping. The moment you do, the thing starts blaring ads at you. Petrol is about $3.50 here. Anna insisted that we drive through Dixie National Park rather than take the more direct route. As a mere driver, I had no choice but to agree. She is, after all the Navigator. We have managed to lose Anna's cell phone at the Grand Canyon and with it our satnav abilities. We are thus entirely dependent on the Navigator and her map. So to Dixie we went. Past Parowan, with a whimsical curio shop. In Summit we saw this car - a throwback colour. Remember the Gunston ads? (I was fascinated by the huge trucks, especially the truck cabs. Always polished to a shine and almost big enough to live in.) The altitude increased and pretty soon there was snow all around. Or rather, ice that was once snow, as Anna found out. A short while later we were brought up short. I did not say a word. A meaningful glance or two, perhaps, but not a word. We could fortunately go back a short way and take a different route that did not delay us all that much. (They should have put up a sign way back to warn of this. The Navigator, I think, is at the mercy of the elements. And do not think that I did not see the "meaningful glance". I did. Oh yes, I did!). Eventually we approached Zion National Park. We had booked a room yesterday or two nights at the Cliffrose Lodge just outside the park entrance in Springdale. As we approached the town, the landscape changed. Springdale owes its existence to Zion National Park. The road that runs through it dead ends at the park. It is not unattractive - 20 lodges and 30 restaurants line the main drag, but it was laid out well. We found our lodging - a room with a view from the balcony: Dinner tonight at the Spotted Dog down the road. The ambience and service boded well. We ordered a Californian Zinfandel (just, but just acceptable) and waited for the arrival of my buffalo burger and Anna's vegetable burger. They arrived and more is the pity. We would have been better off, R750 later, if they had just shut up shop end sent us away. (I got a small cup filled with a barbeque sauce.) They had somehow infused it with a smokey flavour that you could smell 5 miles away. Terrible). Still just basic cafeteria food. And we had such high hopes. We are not, repeat not prepared to pay this much money (the wine was R230) for crap food. So, dear reader, do not expect many reports on food for the rest of our journey through the backwaters. We will make do with what we can put together. Fruit and stuff. I can see a slim, pared down Innkeeper arriving at the Steyns in Canada. If only we could get hold of decent bread, but that is a story in itself. At least we still have some peanuts........ We said that Springdale is a little town of pleasant aspect. Here are a few pics to prove the point: Breakfast was a modest affair at a neighbouring cafe where the Cliffrose people have a contract to supply their breakfast-included guests with a meal. Nothing wrong with the food except that it was sort of dull. Boring. We are also getting tired of eating out of plastic and drinking coffee out of paper cups. We understand that it is easier for the folk working the place. We also understand that the US citizens (who comprise the majority of people we have seen in the parks, by far), are probably used to it. We also understand that it would make no economic sense to switch to proper crockery just for the few out of touch souls who may come wandering in. Like us. Be that as it may, we will cry with joy when we spot a proper plate. And coffee mug. Zion turned out to be good in parts and not so good in parts. The road runs along the bottom of the valley for about 14km and only the first 3 or 4 provide views of note. Very high rock faces - up to 750m dominate the narrow valley. Sort of Meiringspoort on steroids. For the last 10km the views were ok, but not spectacular. Perhaps we had a frame of reference to fit the scenery, rendering it less "Wow". For those of you interested, the gorge was formed some umpteen million years ago when the Colorado Plateaus were uplifted by slowly raising these formations more than 3,000m higher than where they were deposited. This steepened the stream gradient of the ancestral Virgin and other rivers on the plateau. The faster-moving streams took advantage of uplift-created joints in the rocks. Eventually, all softer formations were removed and gorges were cut into the plateaus. We spent the afternoon chilling in the hotel gardens. (I sent some messages home and found a bed of irises in the garden. The largest I have ever seen) Dinner will be some form of light meal. Probably a takeaway pizza. We are now, until further notice, into our damned-if-we-eat-at-another-county-restaurant mode. This is, of course, not a permanent state. We may get tempted in the next few days, but I doubt it. The exception will be Las Vegas, where we hope to find ourselves tomorrow. But then, it is hardly the countryside, is it. On the way we will call in at the Valley of Fire and Red Canyon. We have booked a room at the Carriage House, one block off the Strip and hope to arrive there late afternoon. See a show or eat a decent meal, is the question. Seeing as each will cost around $150 per person..... Las Vegas We left Zion fairly early and set off for Las Vegas. The previous evening we found a room at the Carriage House, a non-casino hotel a block of the Las Vegas Strip. The first small town we passed through was called Virgin. What do you call the inhabitants of the town of Virgin? Virgins? Virgin Buffalo Burgers. Did not know one could in this day and age still find a virgin buffalo. Shows you what I know. We took a small detour to drive through the Valley of Fire, just this side of Las Vegas. A very pleasant drive and very attractive scenery. Too much of the great and grand canyons and stuff we had seen probably rendered us a tad blasé. Eventually Las Vegas arose from the desert, hiding behind a veil of pollution. We found our way to our hotel without problems. If you ever decide to do an extended road trip, invest in a navigator. The human kind. Forget satnavs and stuff, nothing can beat Anna with a map. (Is that why he married me?) We checked in, were upgraded to a suite and went out for dinner a bit later. The newish Continental has a little French/American bistro called Comme Ça which sounded just up our street. We did consider some of the fine dining establishments, but were not persuaded to venture into the $150 (R1400) per person bracket. Without wine. The wine list ranged from $50 (R450) to $11,000 (R99,000). We ordered at the low range and got a bottle of Napa Valley Merlot. Very good. But R450 for a low end Merlot? Their Monday night chef's special was fried chicken, which we both opted for. Came with coleslaw and fries. Real bistro-style presentation. Anna looking pretty, about to tuck in. The fried chicken was by a mile the best we had ever eaten. The meat was tender and moist (even the breast meat) and the batter crisp and flavoursome. We have been trying to disassemble the dish since the dinner. I think we have the pre-cooking part sorted. The batter and frying temperature will have to await experiments. All ye in Wilderness, you have been warned - fried chicken on the menu for a while when we get back. The bill came to $150 (R1400). Which is a lot to pay for fried chicken and wine. But, perhaps not for that fried chicken. We discovered that the shows we would have liked to see are closed on Monday nights, so we did not go to a show. Nor, boringly, did we go gambling. (Perhaps we are just two old people from the platteland, but neither of us could get excited about Vegas.) All the glitz and glamour just did not intrigue us. The whole thing seemed artificial, and is, quite frankly, not my nor Anna's scene. The place is geared to separate you from your money and is just a tad tawdry. This was a huge, 6 storey tv screen running HD ads for the hotel it is attached to, the Aria. Some street scenes: The next morning we left Las Vegas behind. And headed towards Death Valley. The idea was to drive through Death Valley, sleep in Ridgecrest at the other side and then launch an assault on the national parks to the west of the Sierras :- Sequioa and Yosemite. The entire drive was through was one would term desert country. That is because it is mostly filled with nothing. In fact, the amount of nothing we encountered on this drive by far surpassed the nothings we have ever seen elsewhere. But, it eventually exerts a charm of sorts. We had hardly set off, when we saw At least this one had some mountains looming in the background. How about this one: We passed through the metropolis of Pharump: In the middle of the desert we came across two adjacent buildings, probably about 50Km from the nearest habitation. I was flabbermosted. This, in the middle of the desert? Next to it I was a general store. Sort of. I bought us each an ice cream. Stiff back is the reason for the odd pose. Next door to the fireworks shop was a lone sign in the desert. We were not sure whether it pertained to the fireworks place or the alien shop. Hot sauce? The mind boggles. More desert. Long road. No toilets. One has to make do. At last, Death Valley. We looked for, but could not spot any wandering rocks. 86m below sea level. The temperature was 39C, still well below the record of 56C. This was an interesting rather than a spectacular drive. We went long distances without speaking - the landscape lent itself to introspection. Driving it was tiring:- mainly because of the need to maintain a level of concentration and not get lulled by the long, seemingly endless stretches of road. Fortunately the folk in these parts build the minor roads directly on the contours around the road. They do not level minors bumps and valleys: As a result, you get a sort of rollercoaster effect every now and then. Serves to keep you awake. We arrived at Ridgecrest around 15:30. A long day in the desert. It is a small town, but I am sure we will find something light somewhere. Sequoia National Park We left Ridgecrest, heading for Three Rivers, a small town just outside Sequoia National Park. About 350km away. The drive took us through more desert. And more roads disappearing into the distance. We have now had it with the bleakness of the desert. We have seen enough sand and rock to last us the rest of this trip. We shuffled the playlist on my phone, turned the music up and started looking desperately for anything green. At last an odd green tree put in a welcome appearance. Rather weird looking. Later research proved them to be Joshua trees, so named by an early group of Mormons crossing the desert. Welcome nevertheless. We had lunch at a Wendy's, a fast food chain. Unremarkable, except for the glossy propped up on the table: More trees slid into view, and eventually we arrived in Three Rivers. The Comfort Inn provided us with a pleasant room and we settled in for a post-drive nap. Important thing, a post-drive nap. We attended to some admin and then set off for dinner. At a local Mexican eatery. I went out to the car and when I got back, Anna had sorted us with a carafe of Merlot, a basket of nachos and a vile salsa. The wine was devoid of character - a rather slutty merlot, but it went down easily. We ordered. Anna fancied a whole deep fried tilapia and I opted for a steak burrito. It came. The fish was tasty, but deep fried without a batter to within an inch of cremation. Hard and dry. You could pick it u;p by the tail and hold it out straight. My burrito looked like this: The yellow stuff is rice, the brown goo on the right beans. The white goo on the brown goo is melted cheese. The actual burrito is the thing in the back that looks sort of slimy. It wasn't, but it sure had a lot of cheese melted over the tortilla, which contained an odd scrap of meat mixed in with copious amounts of onions and sliced peppers. and more cheese. We manfully (and womanfully) did our best, but could manage to do no more than make a dent in the food. During the course of the meal, I developed a new theory. It goes like this: Bad food is best accompanied by bad wine so that the meal's equilibrium of badness is not disturbed. A quick breakfast at the hotel (at the lower end, under $100 hotel breakfasts are very basic), and off we went into Sequoia National Park. (The Sequoias are what initially put the USA onto our itinerary. The rest sort of followed from that. I was excited). Ok, me too. We both have a thing about trees. The topography and flora soon changed. Mountains covered in trees. Enough greenery and some to spare. The road entered a densely forested area. Large pine and fir trees. And then we came across the first sequioas. A breathtaking experience. This woodland giant loomed over us and dominated its section of the forest like a monarch. More was soon sighted. (I was over the moon. I had thought about this so much. The reality was so much better than I imagined. ) The General Sherman tree was a short distance further. It is 83m high, 7.7m in diameter and 2300 years old. Magnificent. Why they named it after a rather ugly American Civil War general, I don't know. I would have named it for somebody really famous. Like Pik Botha. Oh, wait, he's not American, is he? We continued driving through this amazing place, stopping every now and then to drink in the forest. We found the General Grant tree. At least it is named for a US President. (Die Zuma boom back home, anybody?) If you are wondering, we just could not get the entire tree photographed in a way that made sense. Across the clearing stood four youngsters looking at the General. We came across the stump of a sawn off Sequoia. (I think if God is anywhere, He is in these great trees. I also think that these giants have souls. How they could have been mown down the way the were, I don't now) We had a picnic in the forest. and continued our drive. It led us into a more mountainous area. known as King's Canyon. Beautiful. And so back to our lodging. a splendid day, one that is lodged very firmly in the memory banks. We will do pizza tonight. It is either that or the Mexican place again- an easy choice. Tomorrow we have some admin and stuff to attend to after which we will drive to Yosemite. Next blog in two days. Vaya con dios, as us burrito eaters say. Yosemite From Sequoia National Park to Yosemite is about 380k's. In all we have now driven more than 4000km. The thing is that you do much more moving from A to B with buggerall in between. The part of California that we have seen so far is peculiar. Very flat and, where not planted with fruit trees, dry and dull. We got accommodation in Mariposa, some 30 odd miles from Yosemite. It is weekend and anything closer or in the park itself is booked out. Yosemite occupies 3000 sq km. We drove for miles and miles and saw lots of pine and cedar trees. Big ones. After an hour or so of driving along with the forest on both sides, we began to wonder whether that was it for us. We love trees and forests but were by now longing for a change of scenery. We took a turnoff to a place called Glacier Point. This sounded good. A "point" implies something else that just trees, does it not. After 35 miles of more trees, we came to Glacier Point. Man, was the drive ever worth it! Magnificent! We drove the same 35 miles back towards Yosemite Valley. Some of the trees we passed were familiar, and we waved at them in an amicable fashion. Never does any harm to make friends where you can, and as friends go, these big guys are great. Doesn't drink your wine, never hits on your woman and doesn't talk too much. Approaching Yosemite Valley, we passed through a tunnel and, on the other side, found this view of the valley: This is the heart of Yosemite, the Valley. Forget all the miles and miles of trees, what draws people to the Park is the 2 sq km valley. We drove in, our jaws hanging on our chests. In the pic above, you can see one of the several waterfalls that cascade down the vertiginous cliffs to the valley below. The forest changed- it became softer, more elegant. Decked out with the light greens of spring growth. And always with the towering cliffs in the background, standing guard over the valley. We found a bench to sit and wonder. A bench with a more perfect view does not exist. (As we sat here, the sound of the falling water surrounding us, I could hear my father and my brother laughing. This, I think, is where heaven is) John Muir, an early explorer and naturalist, said "It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter." Amen. You look at the gigantic rock in the pic above, turn around and see this on the other side of the valley: In the end we spent two days here. We would love to come back and stay in the park. When Anna's foot is more walkable. There are trails to explore all over the valley floor. Again at the beginning of May. Today was Saturday, and by midday the place was packed to the gunwales. People with a wild look in their eyes driving around, looking for a parking space. Kids in the back seat screetching like banshees. The toilets were booked out two weeks ahead. Not a pretty sight. We left paradise to the masses, glad that we came very early. When we could still hear the waterfalls and the birds. And could take pics without competing for the best vantage point. I shudder to think what it must be like in summer, during local school holidays. Heaven turned into hell? Yosemite is perfect. Without any humans. On the way home we stopped to buy stuff . Food stuff. We have a cool bag and should we be stranded in the wilderness, we will be able to survive for a few days. I have even developed a technique to open a bottle of wine with my penknife. There at the entrance to the supermarket, was a pile of mielies! I opened one ear and lo! it was white! We bought a pile and upon arrival at the hotel, immediately microwaved a few. Alas, white sweet corn. But I can tell you, for a few moments there I was on a high. (If this sounds like Greek to those not in the know, mail me and I'll enlighten you). Last night we found Savoury, a restaurant that came highly recommended. Thence we went. Interesting menu. They had hardly opened the wine when they brought a basket of bread chunks. Egad! The first good bread we have had in the USA. In the countryside the bread is dire. Excellent, relatively speaking. Anna opted for clam linguini, and I for a New York Strip steak. That is USA speak for a sirloin. (Fillet is tenderloin). Anna got a salad. Turns out that each entree is accompanied by a salad or soup as a starter. This salad we had encountered before. Not the specific actual leaves, of course, but the style. It differs from a heap of lettuce only in that a tablespoonful of carrot is sprinkled on top. That is what turns it into a salad, see. (My linguini was wonderful. The clams were moist and tender and not at all chewy. This was by far the best meal after the chicken in Las Vegas) My steak was great. Just what I imagined it to be:- tender, perfectly grilled gto my specs. At R450, it was a steal. We are chuffed. Things are looking up food-wise. There is a real old fashioned diner in town. Maybe we will look it up for dinner tonight. Day 2 We did have dinner at the diner. Basic. As a diner should be. The carafe was a really awful Cab which improved over time only in that we became accustomed to its terrible taste. Of course we ordered burgers. Sacrilege to do otherwise. Anna's was chicken, mine buffalo. Look carefully at the fries - encrusted with parsley and garlic. (The greatest fries I have ever had.) I would not go quite as far, but man, they were tasty. The burgers were good, although the star of the show was certainly the fries. Why do we not do more with fries at home? Watch out - fried chicken and garlic fries...... We found accommodation at the Half Moon Bay Inn, a hostelry in, amazingly, Half Moon Bay which is about 20 mins from the San Francisco airport. We have to return the rental car by 9, so this should work out well. Along the way we still have some redwoods to see. The Sequoia's sister trees are the coastal Redwoods. Not as massive as the inland ones, but much taller. So, off to Half Moon Bay via Santa Cruz and the Henry Cowell State Park. We have a problem with the Californian landscape. For the entire route through the state, excepting the mountainous areas, the landscape has been bleak. Brown and withered, except for the patches of irrigated stuff - fruit trees and cash crops. One would swear that they never get any rain. It is a month into spring, for heaven's sake. We don't understand it, and it certainly does not make for pleasant driving. "Look darling, at the dead grass!" Hah! As we approached the coast, the dead grass became dotted with green trees. A great relief. I waved at them, but got no response. Just outside Santa Cruz lies the Henry Cowell State Park. Stuffed to the gills with coastal redwoods. Tall, really tall trees. Their boles are not as huge as the giant sequoias, but by all standards, these trees are still massive. There is a lot more undergrowth around them. The big sequoias had hardly anything growing around them, probably because of their very shallow and widespread root system. This was a most enjoyable interval. From here the road turned towards the pacific. We had high hopes, because the maps shows the road running right on the edge of the Pacific all the way to Half Moon Bay. Hah! A really dreary stretch of road. With glimpses of the ocean to the left. We unloaded the car completely, prior to returning it in the morn. Astounding what crap one can accumulate over a 3 week road trip. We found a great baguette and so this will be the in-room dinner tonight: Chicken wings, bread, cheese,fried chicken (yes, I know, but I am taste testing), butter, honey and fresh cherries. Not too shabby. We still have 4 bottles of wine left, and are determined to reduce the count to two. In total we have now driven 4624Km. Here is a map of our wanderings, with each red dot corresponding to a stayover. We will wander around San Francisco tomorrow, and on Tuesday Willie Boshoff, the scion of the Boshoffs of Vereeniging, has kindly volunteered to pick us up and take us places. Great to have a local to show us around, especially as he has muttered darkly about wine tasting and stuff. San Fran We dropped the car off at 9am and taxied to the Serrano Hotel, intent on stashing the luggage and then exploring. They had our room ready - a real bonus. There are in-room robes and then there are those provided by the Serrano. We bought tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus and went off to take a gander at the City by the Bay. Note, if you will, mesdames et messieurs, les chapeaux. I felt dapper. We saw stuff that was great: and stuff that was interesting. Like Haight-Ashbury, centre of the 60's hippy culture: Typical architecture and the SF trams. All interesting, but, except for the Golden Gate bridge, not Wow! Nothing we saw or experienced changed our thought that we should have allocated only 2 days here in stead of 3. I admit that we have not dug beneath the surface, but that is in any event not possible in 3 or 4 days. Either spend a week, and get to grips with life in the city, or spend 2 days, see the sights and get out. The latter is what we should have done, especially given the problems with walking. We had lunch at Pier 39. Anna had fried calamari with fries (!) I had high hopes of what they described as their "World Famous" clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. Sort of like bunny chow, only with soup. And better bread. It looked promising, until one flipped up the bread lid to reveal the actual chowder. A very bland bechamel with little chewy chunks floating disconsolately around. There should be small potato cubes, no? Nary a spud to be seen. Unless they were the small chewy things. Which I assumed to be the clams, but come to think of it, may as well have been potatoes. Wine? Nope. Celery? Nope. The bread was ok, except that I could only eat the lid. If you break off a piece from the bottom without transferring the contents to your stomach first, you break the dam and cause a flood. All in all not great. We mooched around without noting anything worth reporting. For dinner we popped into a small place right next to the hotel. Anna ordered riblets from the starter portion of the menu. They came in a citrusy sauce and were good, I got an 8oz steak. Ok. We have, I think, now got the portion thing licked. Do not order anything with no self-defined size. Anna's riblets is an example of a dish that does not itself define the portion size. Which is why she ordered the starter portion. My 8oz steak cannot be larger than an 8oz steak, so it is a safe order, portion-wise. Hah! Willie Boshoff picked us up the next morning for a trip to the Russian Valley wineries north of San Francisco. An eminently sensible chap, he stopped first at Korbell winery, makers of Korbel Champagnes. We tasted a range of their bubblies, and then settled down under young Redwood trees with a bottle and snacks from their deli. Great champagne and a most pleasant spot to while away a late spring morning. Replete with food and drink, we set off in pursuit of more wine. This, it appeared, was just an interlude to get our taste buds warmed up. Next in line was Garry Farrell's place. They provided two chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs. The chardonnays were ok and the Pinots excellent, especially a fourth one that Willie insisted on having opened. We did major damage to this last one, a Ramal Vinyard Pinot Noir, abandoning all pretense of tasting. From here onwards things proceeded rapidly downhill. We visited 3 more tasting rooms. At one, Mazzocco, I think (sounds vaguely like a Greek bordello, does it not?), we waded into a number of Zinfandels. It was quite a revelation, the variety being almost unkown back home. Big fruit, offset with a finely balanced background acidity. We tasted, I think, about 6. Somewhere along the way Anna opted out. (Someone had to keep her head. Left to their own devices, heaven knows what those two would have done. Bought dozens of bottles of wine. Or started singing, heaven forbid). More Pinots, more Zinfandels. We ended at Pezzi King wineries, near the restaurant where we were due to have an early dinner. I told you Willie is a sensible fellow. Food is what we now needed. And food is what we got. At Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen. Willie brought in one of the Zinfandels he had bought at Mazzocco, and we happily settled down. Anna noted the duck with cry of glee - creamy red pasta rice, shiitake mushroom, bok choy and a grapefruit and orange sauce. Looked good. (tasted good as well) Willie and I wanted to try the Zinfandel against loin of pork with cornbread. Excellent. Except for the pulled pork piled between the medallions of loin. Could have left that off. We returned to our hotel at around 20:30 - a most enjoyable day in most enjoyable company. Thanks, Willie. Tomorrow we will get started early. We need to be at the airport around 04:30, which means we will have to get up at 03:30! The Steyns will pick us up at Vancouver airport for a much belated and frequently postponed sibling visit. We will travel further, exploring a small piece of British Columbia, on Monday and will probably only update you then. The Steyns We were met at Vancouver International by Ora and Pieter - Ora being the Innkeeper's sister. (Vancouver is a great looking airport. The Innkeeper had arranged a wheelchair for me. We were loaded onto a golf cart and whisked through the airport, past all the lines. It was great!) I am going to do the wheelchair thing for all our remaining flights - Anna's foot is still in need of care, so we can do it without feeling guilty. Man, it beats walking! We were whisked off to Hope, BC. "BC" is British Columbia, but us old Canadian hands refer to it familiarly as BC. Hope is a small town on the Fraser river squeezed between mountain ranges. The Fraser river is a significant river. as in wide with lots of water. The amount of water that seems to flow down this one river would, I think, at the very least fill all the swimming pools in Sandton. Every 5 minutes. On the way to Hope, we stopped at the South African store in Vancouver. This is where those longing for boerewors and biltong and Mrs. Balls go to satisfy their craving. The Steyn residence is on the Coquihalla river, a tributary of the Fraser. Due to melting snow and rain, it was showing intent of becoming a contender, racing along at the bottom of the garden. This is where the Steyn clan hang out in summer and where we spent some quality time, revelling in the glorious weather. Great spot, with the river rushing by and all. We also met the inimitable Charlie, the Steyn hound. A sort of schnauzerish dog, we soon became firm friends. Dogs in BC have to submit to the indignity of being dressed in sweaters and raincoats during the winter, snow and stuff being all around, you see. We got a fashion parade - Charlie looking rather sheepish. The white package on the table contains doggy nappies. To Charlie's relief, Pieter did not demonstrate its use. The kids arrived (Ora and Pieter have two daughters, Nelia and Grace.) and the freshly bought boerewors was duly dealt with. Jason (belongs Grace), Innkeeper, Anna, Andrew (belongs Nelia), Grace standing, Ora and Nelia. Family scene with dog. Hope is a pleasant town. (The Innkeeper and I would easily relocate here. Pieter kept on pointing out motels that are for sale...). With the mountains forming an ever present and dramatic backdrop. The house from the bottom of the garden. Kawkawa lake: The community indoor swimming pool: One of its claims to fame is as a place where a lot of chainsaw wood carving takes place. There are wooden sculptures all over town. Unfortunately the one carver we went to visit was absent at the time. We do not know whether this was because he went off to tea or whether he had done himself an injury, chainsawing. We can therefore not report to you how the actual chainsawing is done and whether we are talking full size cut-right-through-a-log-in-2-seconds-flat chainsaws. Maybe the sculptors use mini chainsaws of varying sizes. I could well imagine that a chainsaw that is suitable for shaping a head may be unsuitable for doing the more delicate bits. Here are some sculptures that caught the eye: The stroller belongs to Liam, who belongs to Grace and Jason and is, as you may deduce, still a baby. As such he did not participate much in the wors eating and so, but Jason says that he has hopes that he will later make up lost ground. And the Innkeeper at his angelic best. A few miles up the road one finds Hell's Gate, a place where the Fraser squeezes through a narrow gorge. Reached by cable car, the gorge is quite spectacular. We posed for some photos with a wooden Indian. No, sorry, a wooden First Nations Person, male. (The Canadians refer to their Indians as First Nations.) We had a light lunch at the cafe, consisting of a bowl of surprisingly good clam chowder. A most pleasant outing, especially as the scenery around every corner is simply breathtaking. The Fraser Valley is green, lush and verdant with spring growth. This is the upside of their wet winters - an abundance of water that feeds the fertile valley floor. A good example is Harrison Hot Springs, whence we went of a day. It is located on the Harrison lake, a vast expanse of water. and is surrounded by green, lush green hills and mountains. The sort of lushness that makes you want to sit down on the grass and open a bottle of wine. Pieter has a fire pit at the bottom of the garden. Used for camp fires. And marshmallow toasting. Which we did. Or rather, we did a S'mores - toast a marshmallow, fit it between two biscuits with a piece of chocolate, pour a maple syrup liqueur over it. And eat. It was very, very sweet. I am not sure whether this is a Canadian thing or a Pieter thing, but it was fun nevertheless. (I can report that the Innkeeper is not bad at toasting marshmallows) We visited a local restaurant where we had a really great brisket with polenta fritters and very good fried fish. The Steyns are gracious hosts. We were wined, dined, entertained and taken places. It was great to visit them, great to spend quality time with our far-off family. Distance is a bugger. Thanks Ora, Pieter, Grace, Jason, Nelia and Andy. Hope we see you all soon. Sadly, we had to move on and bid our family adieu. They dropped us off in Chilliwack, we got a car and went off to catch a ferry to Victoria island. We duly got to Victoria, and found a room at the Surf Motel. Great place for $125. Built in the 60's, it has a sort of 60's feel to it - black and white checkerboard tiles in the bathroom and so. Great view over the bay. Dinner was bread and roast chicken in the room - it was rainy, windy and miserable outside and I had to do some blog-related prep. Today we will set off to explore as much as we can of Victoria Island. And, of course keep you, dear readers, informed. Victoria Island The Surf Motel was great value for money. We had a view over what I was told is the Salish Sea, a stretch of water between Canada and the US, leading to the Pacific. Not actually that much to see, but I imagine at the height of summer this would be quite pleasant. You would have to be alert, though. Seems summer here is over in a blink. We drove around Victoria a bit and soon headed for the east coast. Some buildings of historical significance, and a great garden, but insufficient to keep us there for another day. We drove along tree-lined roads for most of the day. Every now and then, we would find a spot to turn off and see something other than trees. Cowichan Bay: The various inlets and harbours and stuff around this side of Vancouver Island are more like lakes - no actual waves, just ripples. No drama, no sturm und drang, just very orderly Canadian waters. Almost groomed, like most of what we have seen is. Mill Bay. We are now, I think, being punished for moaning about the lack of green in California. More trees. These are BC's greatest natural resources, methinks: water, cedar trees and salmon. We passed through Chemainus, known for its murals on the walls of town buildings. We had coffee and Anna liked the moose on the stoep. We considered Tofino, but it seemed a long distance there and back. Pieter told us about a stand of old cedars along the road to Port Alberni. At this point we were already up to the wazoo in trees, but the lure of big 'uns proved to be irresistable. (I was so glad that we went - these trees were magnificent). This is part of a temperate rain forest. Lots of moss and ferns. We had never seen cedars this big. Truly impressive. Anna at bottom right gives some perspective: We returned to the east coast, found a room at the Best Western in Nanaimo. Great dinner - we forgot the camera. (He, the Innkeeper, forgot the camera. Is it not interesting that when I forget something, it is me who forgets. When he does so, suddenly it is "we"). No pics, therefore, but I had a most delectable prawn linguini and Anna made short shrift of a chunk of wild salmon. The next morning we drove through Nanoose Bay, Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Fanny Bay and Courtenay to Comox. Nothing particulary noteworthy along the way. The small towns share a look with a lot of the towns we passed through California. The seaside towns lack, to our admittedly jaundiced eyes, charm. The Strait of Georgia, which separates Vancouver Island from the mainland, is also a ripply affair. Mostly with pebbly beaches. Not without charm, but we were short on time and could not afford to settle down and be charmed. In the end we decided to return to the Nanaimo area, whence we will depart by ferry on Friday morning. This will allow us Thursday at leisure to do the pre-cruise stuff. Like laundry and so on. We remembered passing seaside resorts in Parksville, just 30k from Nanaimo. We found a great cottage surrounded by trees. Mit washing machine, dryer and all the mod cons for $80 per day. A shopping expedition to Parksville and we were set. Lots of wine and Rooibos (thanks, Ora and Pieter). Settling down with a glass of wine, we realised that we had sold Victoria Island short. Firstly, we had not done sufficient prior research. This was because we were undecided whether we would go inland or to the island. (We, meaning I, should have researched both possibilities. Driving around aimlessly, looking for something to look at is not a good idea). Secondly, we should not have squeezed in three days between two trip highlights (the visit to the Steyns and the cruise) and expected it to be great. This does not mean that we would necessarily have been wowed had we done it right, but at least we would have had our expectations shaped and probably found the off-path gems that we have undoubtedly missed. Not that these were wasted days :- we are on holiday, we are together and there are vistas and landscapes around us that we have never seen before. Tomorrow morning we have to get going early. We are taking the early ferry to Vancouver at 06:20 to be sure that we return the rental car in time. We hope to be on the ship at lunchtime. Saturday will be at sea. The first port of call, and therefore the first reasonable opportunity to blog, will be Ketchikan on Sunday. Until then, here is our ship: The Cruise Our last meal in Nanaimo on Victoria Island was home cooking. We sautéed some fresh scallops (small ones) in oil and butter. Anna had breaded veal cutlets with her polenta and sugar snap peas, and I made do with a pan-grilled sirloin steak and a leftover piece of veal. To make crumbs for veal when you have just the basics available: toast two sliced of bread until just golden, rub them against each other over a bowl. Quite satisfactory. We took the early ferry to Vancouver. (When he says “early”, the Innkeeper means that we left at 5am. He had all sorts of reasons - “we need to give the car back, what if we miss the ferry...” All it really means is that he has to be early for everything.) Not much to see. Besides, we were rather sleepy, Anna having got us out of bed so early.... (Hah!) We did not see much of Vancouver, but the bits we saw driving in was most pleasing. The parts of Canada we saw are all very, very civilised and groomed. With the exception of some Indian (sorry, First Nations) hovels and shacks here and there. The infrastructure we saw is uniformly good, the people we met pleasant and friendly and the cities and towns everything you would expect of a first world country. If it were not for the lousy weather, we would be able to live here. At Canada Place, the cruise port, we returned the car in a rather cavalier fashion. The National Car Hire agent told us to park somewhere in the huge parking garage and stick the keys in the box affixed to the pillar marked B4. We did so and went back to the counter to be sure. Strange. The place was writhing with arriving passengers. This was the queue for taxis. They were not ready to check new passengers in, so we had to wait a while. (A while? We waited and waited and waited. I did not once remind the Innkeeper that I predicted the previous night that we would wait. I did not point out to him that I suggested that the 08:30 ferry would be far better that the 06:20 one. I did, however, roll my eyes once or twice. I have over the years become accustomed to arriving at places hours before we should. There was the time at Doha airport when the only people there one morning were us and a guy pushing a mop over the floor. I still love him, though.) Our luggage was checked in and we went through US Border Control, Alaska being part of the USA. (They bought it from the Russians in the 1800's for 2c a hectare). This means standing in queues and waiting. For a long time. When we were done we were firm friends with the surrounding queuers. We had an invite to visit a ranch in Texas and a couple from Japan appointed us godparents to their youngest child. It was almost like being shipwrecked. After passing the gimlet-eyed inspection of the US border people, we boarded the ship. We headed for lunch in the Windjammer buffet restaurant. Fruit sculptures at the entrance. Not bad, not terrible either. More or less what one would expect of a buffet. Anna tried a small bowl of sour and hot prawn soup. She said the smell reminded her of Tutu (our dog back home) when he has been in the rain. She did not finish it. Our cabin, grandly called a stateroom by the Royal Caribbean people, is great. Smallish, but more than adequate for our needs. A comfortable king size bed, a couch and a very small bathroom. We are located on the bow of the ship - that is the round part at the tail end. We have a balcony overlooking the sea at the back, with the ship's wake stretching out behind us. The ship, the Radiance of the Seas, is in splendid shape. It underwent a refit not long ago. There are lounges and bars galore, some with live music. This is the atrium in the middle, spanning 6 floors. And the main dining room, where we had a rather crappy lunch on Saturday. We got a bottle of wine and hung out, reading, chatting and relaxing. We had an unremarkable dinner in the buffet place . Except for the Charles Krug merlot from the Napa Valley. We had bought a wine package online, giving us 12 bottles of our choice for the 7 nights. Means that we will probably have to ration ourselves......The other dining room was packed to the rafters, apparently because the ship left 2 hours late. Early to bed. After all, we were up early.... Saturday was a day at sea. Nothing much happened. People seemed to spend most of the day eating. We came across a pool table. It utilizes a computer with sensors to keep it perfectly level, irrespective of the motion of the ship. And you thought you could blame your shot on the sway of the ship. Saturday night is formal dining. Which means that we dressed up a tad. For the first time in 5 years, I donned a tie. Here we are, ready to go: This is as formal as we could get, given limited packing space for such an extended trip. Not that it mattered much:- we were probably the formallest couple around. We had an excellent Australian Shiraz. Starters were snails, followed by an excellent camembert salad for Anna. and duck with a cranberry sauce and a cabbage confit for me. Very good. We saw an so-so show in the theatre: lots of loud music and people jumping around. And up and down and so on. (They were actually dancing, Mr. Innkeeper, dancing. I thought it was pretty good). The theatre is rather impressive, though. Anna says I should not moan - the show was free, after all. But then there is good free and crappy free........ The entire Saturday was spent at sea and Sunday morning we docked at Ketchikan, a miniscule little nothing town on the Alaskan coast. We spent the day on the ship, lazing about, whilst people took excursions on float planes and stuff. Only one engine, these things, so we gave it a miss. We did get a good pic of the back end of the ship with an arrow marking our cabin. Sorry, stateroom. There was, of course, no actual arrow on the ship. I put it in. For dinner we started with a mango and cranberry soup. and continued with fried Tilapia (me) and a brie tart (Anna). Sort of ok. We hung around, listened to some music as the ship left Ketchikan. The next port of call was Icy Strait Point. There is no actual town by that name. The nearest town is Hoonah, a Tlingit community on Chichagof Island, The Tlingits are in politically incorrect terms sort of Eskimo Indians. They had the savvy to build some basic facilities for cruise ships, add the world's longest and highest zipline, and use their political clout to persuade cruise ships to stop there. There is nothing at Icy Strait Point. Except some souvenir shops, selling T-Shirts and other trinkets made in China. Pretty scenery, though. Lots of snow-capped mountains formed a pleasant backdrop for the squalor that is Hoonah town. Main thing is, Anna and the Innkeeper were going to ride the zipline. It is one long zip of 1600 meters. 396m high. 19 seconds. max speed 96kph. Anna was cheerful. I was shitting my pants. The Innkeeper mit cold weather gear. And glasses to hide the fear behind. We boarded a bus. And went up. And up. The scenery was glorious, spectacular. If you could stop thinking about how you were getting down...... Please bear in mind, gentle reader, that the ocean level down below is where we were going, hanging from a wire. How did I get talked into this - we are talking major height here. There was lots of show still around at the peak of the mountain. As there should be. We were after all, at a height people are not meant to be. We should be issued oxygen masks and stuff. I needed oxygen. I needed brandy. I needed to be anywhere but here. There was a 5 minute walk at the end. Rather steep, so I invoked Anna's foot and we got a ride on a golf cart. Hah! I wish, dear reader, I could have posted stunning pics. I was, however, focusing desperately on keeping my spincter shut.. The camera was the furthest from my mind. This was the jump-off point. Our destination: I stole a pic or two off the internet to show what happened next: You get strapped into a little chair thingy, they do a countdown and then pull a lever. Sounds almost like executing a condemned man, doesn't it? You sort of fly out of the gate and go hurtling down the line. After the initial panic it was great! Fast! Fun! Adrenalin flowed. This shows how high the bloody thing is. I did not look down much. The landing was rather abrupt- braking done by a shock absorber thingy. (This was glorious. Glorious! I had a small knot in my stomach, I'll admit. But it was so much fun. It was cold, mainly due to the wind speed. We were going at 90k's, after all. I wish we could have gone back up and done it again......) Back at the ship we celebrated our survival with a glass or two. While listening to a rather talented couple making good music. Dinner was entirely forgettable, except for the fact that the waiters sang for us, halfway through the meal: Not very well, but very enthusiastically. We saw a tribute to the Temptations in the theater. Good in parts, bad in parts. At least they did not jump about so much. Easier to listen to the music if the people making it stands more or less still. We left while it was still light (the sun only sets at 21:30 hereabouts). A great day. We docked in Juneau this morning, and found Internet access at the local library. We'll probably only blog again on Friday, after the cruise. Tomorrow we'll be in Skagway, where we'll do a railway trip. On Thursday we'll be at sea, visiting the Hubbard glacier. We have accommodation booked at the Bear Lake Lodge in Seward after the cruise and I expect that will be the first time we will have Internet Access. Skagway, it seems, also exists almost solely on the back of tourism and the cruise ships. We encountered a few interesting facts about Alaska today, and thought to share them with you: 54,000 kilometers of shoreline. More than 3 million lakes. 300 rivers, of which 10 is longer than 800Km. We woke up in Juneau on Tuesday. Juneau is the capital city of Alaska. It can only be reached by sea or air. It is a slightly larger version of Ketchikan. More shops selling stuff to cruise ship passengers. These towns, and the cruise ships that ply the Alaska route, have an obsession with jewellery and gemstones. The ships promote the jewellery shops heavily. On shore, they line the streets. We counted at least 4 shops selling diamonds, tanzanite and the like on each block in each of the small towns. Why any sane cruise ship passenger would dash off the ship and embark on a diamond buying spree, heaven alone knows. In any event, there are more jewellery stores in Juneau than you can shake a stick at. Still a pretty grotty place. Mountains along one side and cruise ships along the other. We walked up the main street, decided that we are not going to invest in gems and that was basically it as far as Juneau was concerned. We had no pressing desire to dash off on any of the excursions on offer. The library provided decent internet access, so we could bring the blog up to date. Dinner. Anna had a chicken schnitzel with mash and a lone sprig of broccoli, while I tried a venison stew. Respectively ok and good. After dinner we leaned on the railing of our balcony. Against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, another cruise ship, brightly lit, hove into view. On Wednesday we docked in Skagway, another little town that owes its continued existence to the cruise ships. And, presumably, the diamond-mad passengers. In the days of the Klondike gold rush towards the end of the 1800's, Skagway was a staging point for the prospectors streaming inland. Today, it is a staging point for cruise ship passengers to offload some of their money. They have actual bins standing around, saying “deposit your money here”. This, one would assume, would be in lieu of exchanging some of it for bits of tanzanite. Skagway is actually a quite charming little town. Not much to do other than shopping, though. We bought a ticket on the train that runs up to the White Pass over which the gold seekers went to get to the gold fields. The trip was most interesting, going up through the mountains. Over a wooden trestle bridge. We returned in time for an afternoon nap, after which we met up with folk from Florida for a few glasses of wine and convivial discussions about US politics and African animals and things. Dinner was another formal affair. This time I refused flatly to put on the tie. Not because I had a principial objection, no - the damn shirt collar no longer fits. It literally strangles me. So, tieless I went. Still pretty suave, don't you think? Anna had a mushroom and puff pastry thingy (very good) and I a very good duck consomme. Her mains were broiled lobster tail (ok) and mine grilled sirloin steak with a chive beurre blanc. Ok. Not sure about the little rosemary tree planted in the mash. (We were up early on Thursday morning. I had been looking forward to this day. We were to stop at the Hubbard Glacier in Yakutat Bay. It was a beautiful, but cold sunny day) We ordered breakfast in our stateroom in order to remain in our prime viewing spot. The ship glided into the bay, the only ripples disturbing the placid surface those it created. The scenery was truly breathtaking. Small chunks of floating ice surrounded the ship. It bumped them gently aside. We were moving very slowly. The still water reflected the snow-covered mountains around us. When we arrived at the glacier, the captain spun the ship is a slow, stately pivot to allow all to enjoy the view. From our cabin aft (that is the back, for you landlubbers), we had a great view looking back. A memorable day. Spoilt somewhat by a rather ghastly dinner that evening. The horrific details of which I shall spare you, gentle reader. Suffice it to say that it involved fat. And gristle. And overcooked chicken. And stuff. Friday morning we got off the ship. They call it "disembarking". Sounds better saying to a passenger: "You now need to disembark" rather than "You now need to get off the ship." Same thing, though. We got a shuttle to Anchorage, rented a car and returned to Seward to our lodging for 3 nights, the Bear Lake Lodge. We have to excursions booked on small boats into the Kenai Fjords to see if we can see some marine life. In the meantime we have decided to cut the China leg of our trip short. We are convinced that we will not be able to get the most out of the old towns and such given Anna's limited mobility. So, we will land in Beijing on 29 May, stay there for 3 nights and then fly directly to Johannesburg to arrive back home on 2nd June. A pity, but we do not think it a good idea to spend a lot of money on a less than ideal situation. We will, however, revisit the China thing. Alaska On the way to our b&b, we passed this moose. Female, one of. Ugly, is she not? Only another moose..... Alaska is magnificent! On the ship we had glimpses of its grandeur, but our days in Seward allowed us to get up close and personal with the Alaskan landscape. We took two excursions on small boats, one to Kennai Fjords and the other into Prince William Sound. One trip from Seward and one from Whittier. Just driving around takes your breath away- some roadside scenery: Anna caught this rather peculiar cloud. I still swear it was a ufo.... We had dinner at the Exit Glacier Salmon Bake: The water was peculiarly served in jam jars. I knew we would not be forgiven if we did not try King Crab. so we did. apparently not the right season, so from frozen rather than fresh. I enjoyed it - not unlike crayfish, it has a sweetish taste. (I did not like it at all, a fishy aftertaste. Also too expensive.) Mains were wild Pacific salmon. I thought that it would be more salmony than the farmed Norwegian Salmon we get at home, but it was in fact far more delicate and subtle in taste. We also had dinner at the Resurrection Roadhouse. Burgers of course, what else? So, on to the small boat excursions. The boats were smallish. We consumed copious amounts of ginger toffees beforehand against the mal de mer. It worked. We could be found lounging about like seasoned sailors. Note the cold weather gear. Nifty, no? It was pretty nippy outside the boat, being in amongst ice and all. The boats each had a US Wildlife Ranger on board to tell us about the stuff we saw. Background info. Most interesting. He enrolled the kids on board in a junior ranger program which involved them taking part in his lectures, noting down animal sightings and so on. At the end of the trip, they got sworn in as junior rangers. A great program and one worth copying back home. For the rest, there is not much to say about the stunning landscapes. This may just give you some idea of what caused us to be awestruck: Alaska is home to thousands of glaciers, spawned by large ice fields. A few are tidal glaciers, ending in water. Like this one. We had hoped to spend a day at leisure at the b&b, paddling about Bear Lake. That did not work out so well. Although we had glorious sunshine, the damn lake was still frozen. To boot, on our one free day, it rained. So we read. and drank wine. and made the best of it. We drove from Seward to Anchorage to start our journey to China. 00:25 we boarded an airplane in Anchorage, bound for Seattle. 06:00 we left Seattle for Vancouver, where we will enplane (If you start flying in the middle of the night, you do not board a plane, you enplane) for Beijing at 11:30, an hour from now. We will arrive in Beijing at 14:00. Tomorrow. after an 8 hour flight. Don't ask me. I have the sniffles. We are tired and sleepy. China The sun sets at 23:30 in Anchorage. We know that because at that time on Sunday we were waiting for our flight to Seattle. When we boarded it just after midnight, it was dusk. By the time we could settle down to sleep, sleep had evaded us. We stumbled off in Seattle at 05:00, stumbled on to a small propeller jobby bound for Vancouver at 06:00. And could, of course, still not sleep. 45 minutes later we were in Vancouver, due to leave for Beijing at around 11:00 on Monday. We had breakfast, boarded the flight and settled down. Sleep at last. Not to be. The plane developed some mechanical problem (without even moving an inch, mind you), and we had to get off and wait while they got a fresh one ready. Luckily they had one available - “Bill, roll out the fresh plane, will you” - but we had to sit and wait for two hours while the luggage got transferred and food sorted and so on. Eventually we left Vancouver. And slept. I think this is where the idea of Zombies really came from. The departure halls of international airports. We were certainly ready for starring roles in “The Maple syrup Zombies”. We slept for 10 of the 11 hours of the flight. We arrived in Beijing. The temperature was 36C. We found that it was Wednesday. Somewhere over the Pacific we had crossed the international date line and simply jumped a day. Tuesday May 29 is forever lost to us. I am today 64 years, 10 months and 30 days old, chronologically. I have, however, only lived for 64 years, 10 months and 29 days. We feel cheated.
Beijing Airport is huge. And busy. Not that it bothered us. We had arranged a wheelchair for Anna and went scooting through verboten areas, past queues and onto a train. Anna was decanted next to the baggage carousel. Mirabile dictu, all our bags arrives safely. On to find a taxi. We knew to ignore the offers from touts in the arrivals hall, but it was still difficult to find a taxi driver that was not ready to rip us off in some way. This was the first of many episodes of evading taxi driver attempts to separate us from what money we have. Still, we prevailed and were dropped off on a busy street next to a lane. Our hotel is located in a Hutong. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one group of alleys to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods The driver offloaded our luggage, pointed at the lane, and left us on the wrong side of the road with 5 pieces of luggage. All wheeled, of course, but have you ever tried to schlep 3 pieces of luggage? Hah!. This was the lane, photographed the next day for clarity when there were no people about. We went down the lane, using the word “went' in a very loose sort of way. Anna had two pieces and her foot in the boot to contend with, whilst I flailed around wildly, trying to contain three pieces of luggage, each with a mind of its own. Alleys led off the lane. The second ally on the left was ours: At the end, just past the 4 table Swiss fondue place (and I kid you not), was the Hutongren Courtyard Hotel. At this point we were seriously apprehensive. We needed not be. The small hotel is great. Clean, fresh, and a bedroom with an actual mattress. This became a search criterion after Ora told us about rock hard Chinese beds. We were made welcome by Seven and Eleven, the two young women who apparently manage the place. They told us that their Chinese names have a relationship to the numbers. Blackie is the house dog. We needed to use the loo in our room and found a notice instructing us not to place toilet paper in the toilet, but to throw it into an ordinary waste-paper bin located strategically next to the toilet roll. Apparently old Beijing's sewage system is fragile and cannot handle paper. You cannot, of course, as instructed, merely “throw” the paper into the bin. Bear in mind that it will sit there and fester until the room gets serviced. This means that you have to sort of fold the thing up, wrap it in another layer of paper and then gently deposit it in the bin. Anna found plastic bags somewhere that made the process somewhat more palatable. This was disconcerting – we both had constipation for a day, but had to give in in the end. We settled in and ventured out. This is what the alley looked like, filled with people: There is a gazillion Chinese around from about 10am until late. They are either eating, drinking, smoking or spitting. To be fair, we have only seen men spit. A deep hawking in the back of the throat and then they let fly. The place also stinks. Ora warned us about this, but we were unprepared for the miasma that hangs over the old city. A mixture of sewage and cooking, it creeps up on you. Just when you think that the smell is gone, a fresh waft of it breezes over you. (We are talking seriously smelly here. It is not everywhere, thank goodness, but seems to come and go in patches, especially in the narrow alleys. We avoided the public toilets altogether. Ora warned us that they are generally squat toilets, with no stalls. No privacy at all, and at least of week's worth stuff down the hole – the hotel tells us that the honey wagon does the rounds only once a week). Apparently things are better in many of the newer areas, especially those that were fixed up for the Olympics. Every street we have seen is, however, spotlessly clean. No litter at all. None. This holds good for everywhere the authorities can get at. The smaller alleyways are not as clean. Off to dinner. The network of lanes and alleys are known as a Hutong. In our hutong there is only one sit down restaurant within walking distance. Walking distance takes on a whole new meaning here that has nothing to do with our feet. Strolling down the hutong lanes involves dodging scooters and pedestrians intent on boring you into the ground. The people we encountered did not give way:- I got unceremoniously shouldered out of the way by a small, hunchbacked lady of at least 80. We took a bottle of wine to the restaurant, which initially caused some consternation. The menu was partially in English. Strange, given that the place was wall to wall with Chinese people. Nevertheless welcome. We passed on this and this and settled for "The bamboo fragrant hand rips the chicken". mit rice Which was fine. In fact, more than fine. Whether it was the bamboo, the fragrance, or the skill in ripping, I do not know. Moist and flavoursome. 35 Yuan (about R50). Thursday was another scorcher – 38C. We had breakfast in our hotel: and decided to explore the Silk Market. We got the name of our destination from Seven and set off in search of a taxi. Found one easily, but he did not, or would not, understand Seven's instructions. Eventually he got use to the Market (albeit across the uncrossable street). He was the last honest taxi driver we encountered. Maybe the only one in Beijing. The market turned out not to be a market but 4 floors of stalls selling jewellery, clothing, electronics and stuff. Note the people standing in front of the stalls, mostly young women. As you walk past, they try to get you into their stall. By imploring you, shouting at you - “Lady, come, cheap pearls. You want silk lady, come” and so on. As you walk down the passages, the chorus dying down behind you is replaced by ones in front. Woe betide you if you actually enter a stall. Wriggling loose is not easy at all. Things are thrust at you and the sales pitch rises in volume. Nevertheless, we did buy this and that. The bargaining bit was fun. Stuff is generally priced 4 to 5 times more than the seller will accept. I still have a sneaking suspicion that, despite our best efforts, we still got done in. The problem is with things that you do not have a base price for. Like counterfeit Samsung cell phones. Best one can do is to bargain the price down to a level where the item seems a bargain to you. If you could have got it for less, so be it. We had lunch of sorts in the Hutong lanes. All sorts of stuff for sale. We settled for beef on a stick and a tub of deep-fried tofu. Ok, but nothing shouted “seconds!” at us. The electrical supply lines are dodgy, both in the Hutong and elsewhere: Dinner was again in the local sit down and consisted of prawns with peanuts in a peanutty soy sauce. Extraordinary. The whole peanuts, lightly roasted, added both taste and texture. On Friday we went to the Forbidden City. This was, as you no doubt know, the hangout of the Chinese emperors. Secluded behind high walls. This is a strange place. Grand in as far as the buildings go, but for the rest sort of sterile. Like examining an empty beehive. The exhibits do little to portray the life of the emperors in their secluded enclave. We expected a peek back into the past, to a China that was. We got bare huge squares surrounded by buildings A few containing remnants of a previous splendour Museum exhibits, such as these- exquisite miniatures in jade, gold and lapis lazuli. Extraordinary. The emperor's garden was a let down. Was this the best they could do given a few thousand years? And then, as you may have noticed from the pics, the place had a lot of Chinese visitors. We were lucky that we did not leave our visit to Saturday when there are apparently up to 1.2 million visitors. The mind boggles. The Chinese that was there was quite enough, thank you. We were jostled, pushed aside and generally treated with a breathtaking disdain. Towards the end we were glad to get out of there. We still had to deal with a taxi back to the hotel as well. Endless haggling- there was not even a question of going by the taxi meter here. We got one guy down to 50yuan (about R75) for what would have been no more than 18 yuan on his meter. And he tried to drop us off about a kilometre from the hotel. We had beer in a nearby bar. And wandered through the alleys. It still stunk, but perhaps we were getting used to it. (Maybe the Innkeeper was getting used to it. I was not. Fortunately I could go into a small shop or two. Just to get away from the smell, you see......) We had to wait for a table for dinner. The restaurant thoughtfully provided us with stools to sit on. So, we sat and watched the passing parade, And the foot of a nearby woman whose sandals were clearly too small for her. There were three elderly ladies sitting nearby. Note the shopping trolley. We saw a lot of that – older people sitting on the street and looking at the world passing by. We had duck. and spicy noodles and a straw hat bread. This we will simply have to reproduce at home. In a smaller, individual version. It cost Yuan (3). The meal was, because of the duck, 70yuan (R100). We had arranged with the hotel for a late check-out and planned to go and see modern Beijing. Thus we got a taxi to Wangfujing street, according to Seven the place to go. Please understand that “got a taxi” from the hotel involved: Hailing one. Giving him Seven's Chinese script address of the destination. Watching him ponder these 5 letters for a minute or two. He shrugs his shoulders. I get Seven on the counterfeit Samsung phone. She clears up the address. He refuses to start his meter. I insist that he does. He refuses and asks for 400yuan. I offer 15. A while later we settle for 40. We set off. He stops a while later and gestures us to get off. I refuse, saying as best as I can the street address. He is adamant that we are there. I wave 40 yuan in the air, shaking my head. He curses, grinds the taxi in gear and darts off into the traffic, narrowly avoiding 10 pedestrians, two scooters, a rickshaw and a bus. He deposits us where we want to pay him. I kid you not. I learned later that the meter rates for Beijing taxis has not been adjusted since 2002. Hence the fixed price haggling. In part. There is still a sense that tourists are fair game. Wangfujing is in the middle of Beijing and is indeed modern Beijing. Two interesting whimsical bronzes: Inside was modern shopping malls, restaurants- the face of 21st century China. We had lunch in one of the biggest restaurants I have ever seen - seats, according to the waiting person, 800 people. In an alleyway outside we found street food vendors. I wanted to loiter and do some stating, but then we came across this guy: We left. A last encounter with a taxi left us happy to accept the hotel's suggestion that they arrange an airport transfer for us. We boarded a plane for Johannesburg later that evening. Thus our holiday came to an end. We will need a few days to reflect and will then post a summary. Thanks for following us.