Wednesday, December 31, 2008

America against the World....and itself?

An early start for our journey onto the New World, as usual in darkness and a bracing minus eleven degree temperature, accompanied by the crunching sounds coming from the the frozen grass, which we walk upon. We say our farewell to our beautiful Stephanie, who braved the early morning start to drive us to the railway station. Then a chilling wait for the arrival of our train, which would take us to Stuttgart airport...and destiny.

Check-in at Stuttgart proceeded without incident, with the exception of the custom officials who panicked over a cylindrical object which was detected by their equipment.

"Is this your bag, Sirrrrr?", the official purred.
"Why, yes it is." I replied.
"There is a cylinder...ah...a small 'pip' in the front of your bag, Sirrrrr!" she vouchsafed.

After some scrummaging in the backpack, I withdrew a small torch, and advised the official of the suspect objects' purpose.

"What is it?" exclaimed the official.
"It is a flashlight; a torch." I confirmed.

After giving the suspect object a test run, the official was convinced it was nothing sinister. I said; she said - and the world was as one. Hence, we were allowed to continue our journey with destiny.

One has to be excused for assuming the American government and administration needs an enemy, as a vampire needs blood - well, that may sound somewhat harsh? However, one has to experience first hand, the delights of American passenger scrutiny. As digestion starts in the mouth, Customs scrutiny commences its intense process at the passenger check-in.

Finally, we have boarded our aircraft (Delta Airways) for a ten hour flight to Atlanta, Georgia, whereby we change flights for a further two/three our journey onto Newark, New Jersey, and Michael and New York.

The journey to Atlanta was a tedious and cramped affair, punctuated by the fidgeting; snoring; farting; incessant declining and elevating of their seat backs from the three passengers in front of us. Sleep would not avail itself as easily as it had in our previous transfers. However, we have some respite vide the passenger sitting next to me. This cove speaks Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Spanish and a smattering of Greek but not English. So, communication is achieved through semaphore, hand signals, exchange of roasted peanuts, all punctuated by swear words in Greek! Albeit, we arrive one and a half hours early!

Atlanta - at last - and now, let the games begin!

The first impression any visitor would receive of America, after the entry indoctrination, is one of a country, garrisoned, with its ordinances aimed at the world and towards itself.
The process for entry is easy - "One, Two, Three" as extolled by the smiling images from the multitude of monitors, littering the process area, advising nationals and visitors alike. No one is spared.

Finding one's way from the aircraft to the processing area is a lesson in navigation and endurance - and endurance is indeed the keyword. You enter an auditorium which is a Saragossa Sea for all arrivals, whereby the search for the appropriate queue is aided by an appropriate ratio of officials.

"Nationals" to the left; "Visitors" to the right....and we will ask the questions!

Passengers are marshaled towards their respective areas, then queue again to be interviewed and processed by an official. Questions asked, fingerprints and photographs taken, passports verified and stamped - "Next!" Two hours and five minutes later - spasm number 2, and which smells like the number on the door

Ah, dear reader, there's more..... shit!

Baggage collection; a game of musical carousels? Our luggage can be located at carousel 7 - no, this is for the Houston arrivals. Search for an employee - ah, would they know where luggage from flight DL117 might be? Oh, try carousel 4.... why not. No, this is luggage for the Paris flight. Find another handler - do they know which carousel would have flight DL117? Rustling of manifest - riiiight, carousel 11. Touch down! A frantic race towards spasm number 3!

The time in credit, made with the early arrival, is exhausted through this progressive perceptual leap. We hurry with our wayward luggage towards the baggage screening area. Passengers hurriedly place luggage on conveyors, which is hoped will survive the screening and coincide with their respective flights.

The endurance race is almost at an end.

Final stage, exit and transfers.... whew! Exhibit passports, exchange pleasantries and expulsion into the bustling pedestrian traffic by way of this purgative of paranoia and gastroenteritis. It's now 17:47.

We hasten towards boarding gate B08 to catch our flight scheduled at 18:35. But wait.... there's.... more? Due to congestion with air traffic over New York, our flight has been delayed until 19:30. Sit, unwind, relax, then off to find liquid and solid sustenance. Clock ticking and we're both tired, and then a further update.... our flight has been delayed again until 19:45.

Our flight is finally called; we board and find our seats. Taxi towards the run-up area, all clear and take-off! We finally land at Newark airport at 21:43, embarkation is a simplified process. We are met and heartily greeted by Maria's brother, Michael, who escorts us back to his apartment located near the corner of 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue, New York City! Let the fun begin!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Would we buy one if we could?

Hi all - we have had a busy couple of days doing sightseeing in Stuttgart and Schorndorf.

Yesterday we went with Steph, Felix and Marius (her nephew) to the new Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart. This Museum was only opened in 2008 and is not overly popular with the locals as it costs 8 euros to go in (includes the hire of an audio guide). Supposedly, the old musuem was free. However, they don't know what they are missing out on because this one is fantastic.

We were there for about 5 hours but you could easily spend a whole day there. The museum is divided into two types of exhibits, the legends and the collections. The building is very spectacular, with each level descending in a double helix with the legends on the upper curves and the collections on the lower curves. However, instead of choosing one or the other, most people (including us) choosing to do both! The Legends Tour covers Pioneers - the Invention of the Automobile, Mercedes - the Birth of the Brand, Times of Change - Diesel & the Supercharger, Post-War Miracle - Form & Diversity, Visionaries - Safety & Environment, Moving the World - Global & Individual, Silver Arrows - Races & Records. The Collection tour has the following galleries - Voyagers, Carriers, Helpers, Celebrities and Heroes.

For us, the best thing about the Museum is not that it focuses on Daimler and Benz, but on the company in the community and history. There is as much social history and comment as there is about the development of the cars and the brand. This includes the use of their engines in aircraft (yay said Michael!!!!) and the changes made during the war years, about how the company supported the workers movements in the area and provided social benefits for their workers.

Marius who is ten was as enthralled as any of the adults and was a delight to have along. There are a whole heap more photos and when I get a chance, I will load them into a Picasa Album so you can see them all.

On our return to Weiler last night we joined Olga and Rudi (Steph's aunt & uncle) at Buergerstueble Restaurant which is next door to their place (how handy is that!!!). The hosting was superb and the food fabulous. We concentrated on ordering traditional Swaebian (Schwaebisch) food. Michael had rabbit (the other choice for him was offal ~ yuk) and I had sauerbraten (marinated beef with vinegar in a red wine gravy) and spaetzle ~ SO GOOOOD!!!! We finished with trio of dessert - nougat, panna cotta and marinated pineapple - yum yum yum. Girls, forget the diets! Then off to bed to sleep and dream it off.

Today we went into Schorndorf to spend some money on buying some more warm clothes - Michael got a really good jacket that you can take the inner jacket out. We got thermal underwear and fleece jumpers that are not bulky so we can walk around without feeling like the Michelin Man! Spend a total of 250 euro (about $500) but would have spent at least twice at home. Then off to the old town of Schorndorf. The market place is fascinating and lined by buildings constructed in the 1600s and 1700s. Michael did a Maria and went crazy taking heaps of photos. Again, we wil add some more to a Picasa Album sometime soon.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Prosterchen, mich kriegt ihr nicht ins Klosterchen

Cheers, you won't get me in the convent! This was the saying that I was introduced to many years ago by these two crazy girls visiting from Germany when we took a camping trip to Innisfail with them and our kids.

Tonight we rekindled this friendship with Steph's mate Rikki who had visited us with her in 1997. She is 6 months pregnant with her first child and looks positively radiant. We caught up with her for coffee and tea after we went to the supermarket in Schorndorf (where incidently you can buy a 750ml bottle of Frangelico for 13.95 euro!).

We had a quiet day today, not waking until almost 10 am - OK OK, you don't get it - it was still D A R K. Then down to Steph's for the obligatory breakfast of fresh, warm pretzels and rolls with parma ham and cheese. Chatting with Steph and Felix and showing him some of the photos from home - hey Hels, the pics of the Koalas in your yard are a real hit here!

Cooked a sate stir-fry tonight using a whole heap of veges - sorely needed after days of rich succulent German foods. And then opened the Gin I had bought on the boat over from England.
Tomorrow we are off to the new Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart and then to dinner with Steph's aunt and uncle at a local restaurant.

Christmas draws to a close - but the parties continue!

As we were leaving for Stephs last night after the drinks at Anja and Thomas place, there were a couple of ladies with kids walking down the other side of the street. This equates to the width of 1.5 cars, so they were quite close. We heard one say to the other, ‘this house across the road has some visitors from Australia too’. Well, there was an opening line if ever I heard one so I called out saying we were from Qld Australia. Turns out that one of the women is from Clear Mountain near Samford just north of Brisbane. She is in Weiler visiting her aunt who is a good friend of Steph’s cousin Anja. Small world isn’t it!

Christmas is drawing to a close. Mass was not celebrated in Weiler on Christmas Day but rather on Boxing Day. Michael and I arrange to go to Mass with Mutti, leaving from her house at 10:10 am for Mass at 10:30 am. As Michael cannot remember how to set the alarm on his watch (any clues please sons) we open the outside blinds in our bedroom. Without this, the room would stay dark until well after 9am and we would not have time to have breakfast with Steph.

As we woke, we could see that the day would be cold. There was little colour in the sky, no cloud cover and a brisk breeze. Just enough to make your nose want to sink deep into your face for warmth. The walk down to Steph’s place was done in quick march time!
Mutti was obviously excited that we were going to Mass with her as she couldn’t wait for us to walk up to her place where we are staying. Instead, she walks down to Stephs to collect us there. For 88 and walking with a cane, she did very well. Even though, the iced puddles on the side of the road present constant hazards.

The Catholic Church was full – young people, older people and families with kids. There are heaters under the seats so inside is very warm, yet no one takes off any of their voluminous layers! No one except Maria of course. While it is easy to follow the Mass, it is not so easy to transpose the English version over the German as the cadence is all wrong. However, Mutti was thrilled when I was able to sing along with the (very good) choir when they sang one of the hymns in English. She also got visible joy introducing us to all her friends outside the Church after Mass and Michael was kept busy giving out our cards – they are becoming something of a collector item locally! After Mass, we make a quick visit to the grave of Mutti’s husband Johann and her daughter Marika (Steph’s mum). Then back to Stephs.

This afternoon we went into the television tower in Stuttgart. This is a landmark and with viewing platforms at 150 and 155 m above the ground, you get a fantastic view of Stuttgart city and all the surrounding areas. The air is very clear so the view is good. The view is very different from that of my last visit to the tower in summer in 2006. Without leaf cover, the trees of the surrounding forest look very bleak – even from this height. But with the clear air comes cold and there was a wind blowing at the top as well, so it was some degrees below zero. Funny, I never feel too cold unless there is a wind. It is not long before Steph and I chicken out and head to the relative warmth of the restaurant below to await Michael and order some lunch. Michael follows not too long after. The cold is playing havoc with my hip today.

On the way up to the Tower, we called into the Santiago del Chile Platz – a small square on the hills above Stuttgart that afford some wonderful views of the city below. This is an area that Steph would love to live in – with old (sometimes art deco) buildings with fantastic views and a sought after address.
Once we finish our pasta and salad lunches, we drive into Stuttgart West which Steph explains is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. The area was extensively bombed in WWII and there are many new medium and high density apartment blocks here. We go to Felix’ apartment block and await his return from Uni so he can come with us to Stephs. Parking is at a premium around here and we are lucky to get a spot close to the apartment.
Steph is driving a Renault Megane convertible now and it will be interesting to see the four of us fit into this car with four seats but really built for two! Nevertheless, we manage – thankfully though the trip is only 30 minutes.

Tonight Steph and Felix are making dinner for his family, Steph’s Aunt Olga and Uncle Rudi and Michael and I. In the end, Olga just visits for a little while as Rudi is sick in bed with a lung infection. Steph is cooking venison with apples and mashed potatoes plus a green salad. It is just divine – the meat is succulent and tender, the potatoes smooth and creamy and the sweetness of the caramelised apples balances perfectly with the rich meat. The field salad is made with a lettuce leaf that is only available in winter – I have never seen it before and discover that it is commonly called lamb’s tongue. Christa (Felix’ mum) makes a huge and wonderful trifle for dessert – rich with sherry soaked cake, lots of (fresh) berries, custard and decadently rich cream. The meal is accompanied by a local wine from the Fellbach and is a medium red called Acolon – a relatively new grape style. It is all followed by coffee and the most divine Christmas biscuits called Gutzle. Go try the lebkuchen from Aldi and you sort of get the idea – but these are all home made and just SO much better with styles that include shortbreads, macaroons, sugar cookies, nougat etc etc etc – go weep!!!!! We enjoyed them!!!!

One of the conversations turns to wine preferences and everyone looks very uncomfortable when I explain that I prefer European whites to Australian whites due to the use of preservatives. The penny drops when Steph explains that in German, a preservative is a condom!!!!! The German equivalent of an Australian preservative is Konservierungsstoff – think I’ll stick with the good old preservative – no matter which type!
All in all a great Christmas!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Europe in winter

And so this is Christmas -
So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young - John Lennon

The Germans celebrate Christmas on the night of the 24th. After a quiet day chatting with Steph, we wrap the last few gifts and make our way just before 6 pm to her cousin Uli's home. There is much excitement - especially from the nieces and nephews, as they await the visit of the Christ Child with gifts.
All the furniture has been moved to make way for 2 large tables to be joined so we all (14) can share raclette for dinner. For those who have never had this, it is fantastic. There are a number of burners placed on the table with lots of meats and cheeses and accompniaments and garnishes. Each person has a small pan to cook foods under the grill while raw meats and smallgoods are cooked on top of the grill. The closest thing we have ever had is fondue - and yet it is really nothing like it.

After we exchange gifts, we share a fantastic meal with much merriement around the table. The whole family laughs and jokes together and they make sure that we understand all that is being said. The wine flows freely, the food is plentiful and tonight all is right with the world from where we sit.

Back home with very full bellies and to bed.

Christmas morning comes and while it is cool it is not cold enough for snow. We walk down to Steph's (it is only a block) and start to try to phone everyone for Christmas in Australia knowing that it is late afternoon down under as we try. We finally get on to Gen, can only leave a message for Antony and James' phone just rings on and on and on. The two mums are unreachable as the landlines to Australia (or maybe out of Europe) are congested. I am sure they know that we are thinking of them today and we will continue to try to phone them in the coming days.

Today there is more eating drinking and being merry. We go to Mutti's place for lunch at 1:00 pm where today there is 15 people (Felix also joins us today). Mutti, at 88 years of age, can still cook up a veritable feast with some help from her daughter Olga and grand-daughters Anja and Uli. We are served roast duck with spaetzle (noodles), knoedel (bread dumplings), red cabbage and gravy that is balanced with a green field salad. All downed with Trollinger wine (a light red) and bottles of apple juice mixed with mineral water. It is all so delicious and we are gathering deli ideas all the while! (No photos today - we are all too busy eating!)

After lunch, we drive down to have a look at the Muzc family car dealership (Renault only). They are very proud of their business and it shows in many ways - the cleanliness (even of the mechanics bay), the layout and the careful attention to detail. After this we go to Anja and Thomas home for Sparkling wine - ah yes, like in Australia they know better than to call it champagne!

And still they ask if we want some dinner to eat - whew.

So now back to Steph's and the updating of the blog ...

We hope that you all have/had a wonderful Christmas shared with those you love, with enough food so that you are not hungry and a few nice gifts. It has certainly been a very different Christmas here and it was lovely to share the traditions of another family in another time and place.

Give each other a hug and a kiss from us and know that you are all in our thoughts and hearts from the other side of the world. Merry Christmas to one and to all.

Schorndorf - here we come - hope you are ready!

The trip down the autobahn is without incident. Michael is constantly fascinated by the wind turbine farms and likens them to something from the War of the Worlds. The traffic seems to fly past us travelling at 120 kph. There is supposedly a speed limit of 130 kph but I guess old habits die hard (from the days of no speed limits) as many of them are doing in excess of 150! We decide 120 kph is enough as the car is hungry enough at that speed.

The roads are well signed and it is easy to follow the autobahn and then the highways into Stuttgart. A little harder to find the road connections to the smaller communities. Finally at 1:00 pm we arrive in Schorndorf Weiler and a quick phone call to Steph to ask 'where the bloody hell are you' calls her to the balcony where we are parked below! She looks really well and happy to see us and there are many hugs all round.

We sit and chat and have pretzels for lunch - yu-um. I don't care how nice it is to have pretzels on sale in the markets at Maryborough, there is nothing like really fresh pretzels warm from a German bakerei! So pretzels and ham and cheese and chat - nothing like it!!! Following lunch, we go up to Steph's aunt and uncles house where we will be staying. Mutti (her grandmother) is keeping watch from behind the curtain and is outside waiting for hellos before we can get out of the car. It is lovely to see her again, although she is older and looks more frail than I remember her. We meet Aunt Olga but Uncle Rudi is not well and is in bed. You should see the rooms we have. They are on the second floor of their house and consist of a huge bedroom, a separate living room and a bathroom. Such joy after hotel rooms for the past couple of weeks. It is very obvious that they have all gone to a lot of trouble to get ready for our arrival and it is lovely to be welcomed so warmly into the family.

As tonight is the last night for the Christmas market in Stuttgart (that are known as the best in Europe) we had asked Steph if she would come with us. As parking will be painful in the centre of town, we catch a train in and meet up with Steph's man Felix at the station in Stuttgart. He has worked as a tour guide one summer, so knows all the information about the area that we are walking through and readily shares it with us.

The markets do not disappoint us. Lisa, Kelli and all of you need to come and see how a REAL Christmas market operates!!! Maybe FCRC can send you to investigate!!!

The stalls are a combination of food stalls, handicrafts and commercial goods. But all are themed and as it is now dark (of course!) everything is lit. We go to the Ratskeller Stall for Nuernberger Wuerschdle (Bratwurst) Rolls and Gluehwein. Talk about food fit for kings. After we finish, we spend the next couple of hours wandering through the markets, contemplating buying all sorts of traditional souvenirs and decide that we are not in a position to carry them all. Michael however does manage to get a fleece lined flannalette over shirt for 15 euros.

We finish our night at the Breuninger Department Store - a large store similar to David Jones that is only found in the Stuttgart area - they have 10 outlets for hot chocolate and coffee before returning to the Station via another section of the Christmas markets for the train ride back to Schorndorf.

Onward towards Stephi!

So we leave Belgium and head for Germany and our beloved Steph.

The winter days all seem to start the same - with the very late arrival of the morning sun, grey and somewhat bleak. Being overcast, the weather remains warmer rather than cold, for which we are both thankful.

We head from Liege into Germany off the autobahn and onto the smaller local highways that take us over the tops of mountains where the snow from a week ago is still melting on the roadside, down twisting and turning hairpins (boy the car corners beautifully!) into the valleys where even after one decent snow and melt the rivers run fast.

We had left without having breakfast (still full from the Thai meal the night before) and by 11 am we are getting hungry. At Monschau we come across a handmarket outlet that specialises in hand blown glass and we decide to have lunch there. Schintzel with pommes frites (french fries) and salad followed by struedel for Michael and waffles with kirsch (cherries) for Maria. mm mmmm!

Then we head for Koblenz and the Rhine. Before we get into Koblenz, we turn south for St Goar and the areas that I visited in 2006. By this stage it is getting dark and when we reach St Goar, it is fully dark with both the Burg Reinfels and the Cathedral lit. It is such a beautiful site. We stop so that Michael can take some photos and I try to phone mum (but can't get an answer) and so I phone Donna (sister) to tell her we are there again. Of course, time calculations are not always the best when you are all excited and I calculate Australian time behind us instead of ahead, so wake her at 4 am - don't laugh - it could be YOU next time!!!

I suggest that we head for Bacharach just a little further south to stay for the night. Like St Goar, it is all lit up for Christmas. Somehow however, it feels more special as the streets here are very narrow and paved with cobblestones worn through the ages. We look for accommodation but find that mny of the hotels and guesthouses are closed for the winter and those that are not are fully booked. It is getting later now - about 6:30 pm and very dark. We decide to puch through to Mainz and so hit the open road again. Although we are travelling along the Rhine, it is dark and we can only sense the river. We pass the Loreley Rock again with the tower lit. Further south, we come to the river bridge across to Bingen close to where the Nahe River joins the Rhine. As this is a much larger town, we call in there. We can get into the City proper quite easily, but again are having trouble finding somewhere to stay. Finally, one hotel we call at knows of another that has vacancies and calls ahead to the Hotel Krone. At this point, so long as the bad lies flat on the floor, we could not have cared what it was like. It turns out to be very comfortable and on the river, adjacent to the very busy rail line between Koblenz and Mainz. But there kitchen is closed for the night so we venture down the road to the next guest hotel where Maria has a traditional meal of Siedfleisch and Kartoffelknoedel (potato dumplings) and a local Rhine Reisling and Michael has a german mixed grill and mashed potato. Both were excellent and Maria finishes with Apfelkorn (apple schnapps).

Then to bed and a good sleep.

Breakfast is served in the restaurant and consists of typical german bread rolls with cold meats (such delicious parma ham) and cheeses plus coffee and jams etc. A great start to the day's journey. Today, we head for Stuttgart along the autobahn - closer to Steph . . .

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A new day dawns

With the car and the costly insurance ($AUD 2k!) sorted we are ready to head to the continent. As soon as we had the cover note in our hands, I had booked a space on one of the SeaFrance ferries that ply the waters between Dover in England and Calais in France.

We then let our hair down a little, catching the Tube into Leicester Square and queuing with all the other hopefuls for last minute tickets to a live show. Derek Jacobi is starring in 'Hamlet' - but nothing available, Spamalot is a sellout as is Mamma Mia. BUT we get tickets in the 7th row off centre for We Will Rock You playing at the Dominion Theatre. We walk about a km and into the theatre where we are shown to the Box Office. We explain that we already have tickets and the ushers look quite perplexed. It is only then that we look at our watches and realise that it is only just past 5 pm! It is SO dark outside that we think it is much later. We head out into the street and in a quiet little back alley find an authentic Italian restaurant. As we are seated, the maitre’d tell us he needs the table by 7 – whatever! The food is F A B U L O U S! Back to the theatre and a bunch of middle aged women behind us with one of them more vocal than me – I know it’s hard to believe, but she was. Made me realise how grating it can be –hmm, so feel free to tell me next time!!

Today, the day dawns grey – typical for this time of the year in London. We know that we need to be moving early to make sure we are in Dover in time for the ferry. As we pull away from the Mayflower at 8 am, the dawn has broken sufficiently (just) for the street lights to be extinguished. Wow – it is hard to get used to such short days.
The trip to Dover is uneventful with our route out of London skirting around the southern England Canterbury and Salisbury Plains. We pass through interesting countryside – over hill and dale, with Michael constantly remarking about the various war sites we are passing. We don’t have time to stop today however and he makes many mental notes for when we get back into the UK.
On to Dover and a 30 minute wait in row 229Z, for the ferry loading to begin. By this time we are starving as we didn’t get breakfast before we left. As soon as we are onboard, we go up to the top deck and find the restaurant where for the princely sum of 10 pounds each we have a full English Breakfast – worth waiting for. The journey across is pretty uneventful.

I am surprised at how calm the crossing is – I look out the window and notice that there is almost no movement of the vessel against the horizon, despite my stomach feeling like we are lurching wildly. It is only when I see the movement reflected in a glass panel on the other side of the restaurant that I realise (and Michael explains) that my brain is deceiving my eyes and that the ferry is bowing into and out of the swell quite a bit. Ahh be still my screaming nerves! Only one way to cure this – go shopping! The onboard shop certainly has any number of bargains. We get three novels, one litre of Gordon’s Dry Gin and one litre of Baileys for just over 40 pounds. That made the alcohol worth 10 pounds a bottle! All too soon, the sales assistants are telling us that the shop is closing and we must pay. It is only then that we realise that we are docking in Calais already. And Michael has not even been out on deck yet to get photos! Wow, another task for the return crossing. Back to car and a shorter wait for disembarkation. We arrive on French soil about 2:30 pm.
France is very well, French! Not a single sign in English or even bilingual. Thankfully, we are able to follow road numbers and major town names. Without these, we would be lost. Upon leaving Calais we travel towards Dunkerque and as we approach the evidence of those desperate days of 1940 are subtle though not erased. Although we are travelling the ‘coast’ road, we barely see any sight of the water at all. All too soon we are out of France and into Belgium. I draw Michael’s attention to the border sign – the EU one – now that there are no border posts, it is almost an anticlimax! Michael is most taken with the wind turbines and takes many many photos.
We are heading towards Oostende, turning for Brugges before we reach there. We are excited to be heading into Bruges as Fliss has told us about a wonderful shop for HOT CHOCOLATE called Catherin’s in the main street of the old town and we’re determined to try it! I mean, Belgium is the home of wonderful chocolate as we all know. But we had not counted on the local conditions. Of course, we are days out from Christmas (and the last weekend before!) and the traffic in the centre of the City is absolutely crazy. And there are more people wandering on foot than there are cars!!! We soon realise that this is not the time to be trying to wander and just looking around. So we decide to push through the Ghent. Ha ha same story!
So off to Brussels. A beautiful City but, my god, what a mistake. It takes us all of 2 hours and a quarter tank of fuel to get out of Brussels. It is only now that we realise that there are Christmas markets and celebrations such as fairs in ALL the European cities. It is now well and truly dark. The lights look amazing and the streets are all decorated making a beautiful sight. As we decide to get to a smaller town for the night, Michael suggests that we try Liege further to the south. Eventually, we manage to get on to the correct road (many of the inner streets are closed) and head away from the mayhem and happy revellers.
Liege turns out to be a city almost as large as Brugges. We manage to get right into the centre of the City to discover that there is an Opera playing and indeed just finishing as we get there, so more traffic with people trying to leave. The streets are cobblestoned, narrow and one-way. We have driven passed the Mecure Hotel and when we are unable to find anything else with vacancies, we go back there and book in.
There is a Thai restaurant just down the road and as it is 9 pm now we decide that we had better try to get some dinner. The food was very good and the Thai chicken salad one of the best we have ever tasted. By this stage we are tired and pleased that the bed is comfortable and we sleep very well.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ahhh mobile again!

And isn't that music to our ears!

Following a 2.5 hour train trip, we arrive at Wigan to have a look at the car we are interested in. The rain sets in again - I had forgotten what mid-winter can be like in a climate that truly has four seasons (like Sydney and unlike Maryborough!)

So, here she is:

Bought for the princely sum of 1750 pounds. 2001 Vauxhall Vectra with only 58000 miles on the clock. Obviously doesn't hold a candle to Helen's new car!!

An uneventful trip back into Lonon in the rain - and a test of everyone's patience as we try to navigate through totally unknown areas!!!!
Now we are trying to sort out insurance - gosh, will be so glad when we can get on the road finally!

London in a nutshell . . .

It has been an eventful couple of days. We have been searching for a car and after talking with (brother) Michael and my cousin Anna here in the UK, we opted for a private purchase. So after trawling the net, we find one on eBay that looks pretty good. It is a 2001 Vauxhall Vectra S1 with only 58000 miles on the clock. Only problem is that it is in Wigan – up past Liverpool. We make contact with the owners and arrange to visit on Friday (today).

So, now we have Thursday at our disposal to do some sightseeing!
Knowing that our time in London is limited this visit, we decide to do a red bus tour in order to get our bearings properly and see as much as we can. So into town on the Underground to Leicester Square and off we go on the Original London Tour. A double decker bus allows us to get a variety of views. Michael is busy with the cameras while Maria records notes. Funnily enough – one of the firsts sights we pass is Eaton Square in Belgravia – the Square used in the filming of Mary Poppins – what a coincidence that there is a link with back home so early in the tour!

With an excellent commentary, we pass iconic sights such as Buckingham Palace and learn that the parade ground is actually the rear of the Palace, Westminster Abbey, Horseferry Road where – you guessed it – horses once pulled the ferries across the Thames. Over London Bridge looking at the Houses of Parliament (where the flag flying from the Victoria Tower showed that Parliament was sitting – the UK House of Commons has 640 members), Big Ben and the London Eye.
Parliament Square is home to statues of famous politicians. Travelling down Whitehall, there are a series of War Memorials in the centre of the road and buildings along here house the operations of the various arms of the Armed Forces.
Outside the National Gallery is a pavement artist – if you think the artists employed at the last Mary Poppins Festival in Maryborough were good – you should have seen this one – except that her works were in paint on a large cloth that could be taken up each day. We continue past Trafalgar Square with Nelson’s Column. Our trip starts to follow the Monopoly Board – The Strand connects the City of Westminster and the City of London. We pass Covent Garden and lose count of all the theatres, and Australia House, filmed as Gringott’s Bank in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone.
We see the Twinnings Store that holds a Guinness World Record for the longest purveyor of the same goods on the same site by the same company. London is a mix of the old sitting comfortably alongside the new. There are any number of small, dark passages and alleys with evocative names such as Hen and Chicken Court. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese claims to be the oldest pub in the world, being re-built after the Great Fire of London. We continue passing names that are familiar to us – the Old Bailey, Fleet Street. Mansion House Street is the shortest street in London with a total distance of 50 yards. The NatWest Bank that extends the length of this street was one of the sites used in Goldfinger of 007 fame. And guess what – there is an Ave Maria Lane in London EC4!
We are told that there has been a bridge on the site of the London Bridge for over 2000 years. The nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down commemorates the battle for the bridge when the Danes were attacking London. King Olaf of Sweden had his troops on the bridge and the british were under the bridge. At the direction of King Olaf, together they pulled the bridge down to thwart the attempts of the Danes – and hence the song!
Tower Bridge and the nearby fortifications are truly a sight to hold. Not only is this the home of the Crown Jewels, but it also house convicted traitors – rowed in through Traitors Gate on the high tide. Acknowledged as the most haunted buildings in London, there were only just 5 executions here.
Sitting alongside the Thames you find Cleopatra’s Needle guarded by two sphinx. This obelisk, in existence for more than 1,000 years before the famous Queen Cleopatra, was presented to the UK in 1819 by Mehemet Ali, the Albanian-born viceroy of Egypt. It was not transported until 1878 as the UK Parliament decided against funding its delivery. The Embankment as this area is known, was constructed to cover the sewer that runs underneath and in to the Thames.
Then we are back into the City and to Michael’s joy, we pass the Sherlock Holmes Pub before we get to Admiralty Arch and Leicester Square and then St James Palace – the London home to Princes Charles, William and Harry where the gas lights are still used in the street.

This tour lasted just over 1.5 hours and showed us the greatest part of London City. As the weather was inclement with patches of rain and a cold wind, we decide to transfer to another of the routes. This time we see the Ritz Hotel – one of London’s first iron framed buildings, past Green Park into Park Lane and Piccadilly (there we go with the Monopoly Board again). We travel through Knightsbridge, down Seville Street into Kensington with street upon street of majestic white 3 – 4 storied stately attached homes – all very similar (wouldn’t do to be drunk and having newly moved there ;-)! ) The Royal Albert Hall was hosting a performance with hundreds of patrons crowded in the foyer. There was an ice-rink set up in the grounds of the Natural History Museum and lots of people skating – young and old – so it is not just an american thing! Alongside the rink was a Christmas Fair.
The Victoria and Albert Museum (known colloquially as the V&A) was built from the proceeds of an early London Exhibition and current renovations are being funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Harrods has an interesting past and continues to be a shopping icon in London. As does the Harvey Nichols Department Store and Fortnum & Masons which started after Mr Fortnum got wealthy selling used candles from the Palace. The Burlington Arcade is of a much higher calibre and dates back to the 1660s.
We finish this tour with a few other impressions – 2008 Christmas in London is predominantly blue and white. Even though it is winter, there are still a number of amber leaves falling from the trees, and the various residential areas close to the City are all distinct, reflecting different construction materials and styles, but all are uniform within each of the precincts.

Although at 4pm it is now dark (and cold) there is still life in the streets. Michael is dying to see the British Museum and so off we set on foot. We have just over an hour to explore and so I encourage him to head for the Egyptian Rooms initially.

The museum is indeed a Cathedral of Wonders! Cavernous, and with adjoining rooms, which provides visitors with an array of interests and amazing visions.
You wander through these corridors of time; Babylon, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Lukka people, and finally – Egypt...

“Oh wondrous splendor is in thine eyes Osiris, God of Wisdom. For thy beauty is great amongst the heavens and which bears thee upon their gossamer of stars. By the Lord Thoth, thy light in its brightness is truth.” Papyrus of Ani, Egyptian Book of the Dead

The dimmed lighting and the silent chorus of gazers, enhances the mystery of the Egyptians’ obsession with the afterlife. The overwhelming detail of the sarcophagi is increased by the use of gold leaf; bold ochre’s, reds, blues and greens; elegant hieroglyphs. Delicate alabaster Canopic jars, which still protect the organs of their benefactors, with lids devoted to those gods in judgment; Bast, Maat, Anubis, Horus.

Further into this exhibition, glass display cases illustrate through various mediums the development of the Egyptian language: papyri, stele, and frescoes.

Back in the main hall of the Museum, you can sit and gaze at the building itself. Enclosed within the formal architecture of the building with its Grecian Ionic Columns is the largest public square in Europe (2 acres) under a glass roof. This provides a sense of lightness while the inner workings such as lifts, eduactional and reading rooms fulfil their duties. It allows the looker to better appreciate the beautiful structures of the original building.
So, having barely sampled of the fruits on offer, we leave with the other visitors at the close of the day at 5:30 pm and are thrust into the heady world of London peak hour. Knowing we have an early start the next day, we headback for Earl's Court for dinner at an Indian Restaurant titled Masala Zone before we return to the Mayflower.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Adieu Beijing

Well - two and a bit days is definitely not enough to see much of Beijing. Still, we crammed quite a lot into our short time. Some of the things that really hit home include:
- Pollution – from our 16th floor room at the Novotel Peace, the view clearly showed the pollution – or so we thought. At times we could not see more than 6 blocks. However, when we were leaving, we were horrified that we could not see one airport terminal from the next! When we asked both the guides both proudly commented that the air quality was pretty good and that the government was doing much to improve it!
- Taxi drivers in Beijing would feel very much at home in Sydney or Melbourne – although I fear that their Australian counterparts would not cope in Beijing where the horn rules and it is readily accepted that vehicles drive at distances of as little as a cm apart and that it is normal that pedestrians and bicycles share the road with little hazard.
- That despite all the hype of Beijing and the modern neon night settings, you do not have to go far to see the poverty of the agricultural sector and wonder at how they survive in ramshackle homes when they cannot farm in the harshness of the winter.
- The history available to be seen is so hard for us to comprehend coming from a country where our built history is so short. Much of what we saw dated to before the western exploration and settlement of Australia!
- The vast and desolate area that is covered by the Great Wall(s) of China and how harsh the climate is. One wonders why they ever needed to be constructed as a defence! Gosh – even at the start of winter it was bitterly cold and windy!
- People, people, people everywhere – but we kind of expected that one.

So, off we head to London via Vienna.
We are collected from the hotel by a non-English speaking driver who speeds through the city, struggling with first gear in a saloon car that is obviously in need of some TLC. He insists on parking in the parking station at the Airport and carting our luggage to the departure check in (would have been easier for all concerned if he had pulled up to the departure doors and let us take it from there – but obviously he had his orders!)
Beijing International Airport is cavernous. The pollution permeates into the building even here.
Check in is uneventful and we are eventually on our Austrian Air plane winging westward. Fed and watered, they close the plane down, raise the temperature and true to form, most people start to snooze. But it is only later afternoon!!! As the journey progresses, we open the shade from time to time to glimpse down on large desert areas, mountains and into the night, on the far off lights of cities big and small. The flight lasts just over 10 hours and flies over Central Asia, most of Russia, over the Urals and then southwest into Vienna. By now, we are carting two backpacks, the laptop, the camera, a full Tim Tam bag, a Duty free bag and our coats so we are thankful that our arrival and departure gates are side by side in Vienna.

We are weary and growing sick of cramped airplanes. Michael has even questioned whether it is worth going business class (OMG). The flight into Heathrow is only 2.5 hours but still we sleep most of the way. We leave Vienna a little late due to closing weather conditions in London and once over London, we are put into a holding pattern for 15 mins. We arrive at an obscure gate right around the back somewhere that smells musty and dank. Twists and turns eventually find us in the arrivals hall.

Tired and laden as we are, we opt to take a cab into Earls Court and our accommodation. In a traditional London Cab with a typical Pommie driver full of jokes about all things Australian, we arrive £50 ($AUD 110) lighter just before 10:45 pm. Our room is inversely proportional to that in Beijing. Where it was spacious, we squeeze into 2.5 m x 4.5 m plus an ensuite bathroom measuring 1.5 m x 2.5 m. Still, we are very close to the centre of London at £55 ($AUD120) per night.

We hit the pc with a vengeance today looking for a car. Finally find one that we want to have a look at on eBay (whoo-hoo). We phone the sellers who are at work and have to leave a message, so we also send an email.
Michael ventures out and brings back kebabs and Starbucks Coffee for lunch.

Ah, Earle’s Court Road, it is exactly how one would envisage it? Crammed with pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and eatery’s (offering a variety of fare), from pubs to restaurants a-plenty.

Finally manage to contact my brother Michael now in New York and Anna, my cousin here in London.

Michael is feeling cooped up and takes a stroll down to the British Museum of Natural History, about 30 minutes walk away, and whets his appetite for when we do some sightseeing once we finalise sorting the car out.

Egads - it is 4:30 pm and DARK! Tonight promises to be cold - 1 degree but with the promise of cloud cover and a warmer tomorrow - maybe as high as 11 degrees. See you all soon back here in cyberspace.

Beijing Day 2

Guess the jetlag catches you quickly. We slept until 9:00 am – and still had not had breakfast. The shower was great – plenty of pressure and nice and hot to help wake us up.
The Novotel Peace Hotel is easily an upper 4 star. Inviting, friendly staff, very nice rooms (with a fantastic bathroom), great views – at least from the 16th floor, very good food etc.
We hurry to the Square Restaurant for breakfast. What a feast! For those of you who have been to the Star City Buffet in Sydney, the only thing missing was the prawns. We hurriedly eat our fill – cereal and fruit, Chinese sausage, eggs, sautéed potatoes, pastries and great coffee. Once finished, we go to the foyer to meet Jack.
From the start, he is very obliging and ready to discuss our options for getting to the things that we want to see. Maria decides not to go to the Forbidden City (feet are killing her) and so Michael and Jack set off.

The fastest way to travel around Beijing is by taxi (even in the traffic). The trip to the Forbidden City takes 10 minutes and costs ¥10 ($2.50).

“Look upon my works, all ye who are mighty; and despair.” – Ozymandias
If there is one emphasis the Forbidden City impresses upon a visitor, and that would be one of intimidation. If this is the effect the Emperors’ wished to afford upon visiting envoys and emissaries, I would suggest they succeeded. This indeed was my reaction upon arriving at this once centre of power.

However, my initial reaction was realising how cold Beijing can become. To enter the City’s precinct, one has to cross the Royal Bridge spanning a moat, the surface being completely frozen!
Bobbing within a sea of humanity, jostling for the ticket sellers and whilst jousting with the professional beggars...all this before gaining entry through the main gates! It certainly makes one appreciate the wide open spaces of home. Mind you, I would never exchange this experience for anything else.

The second impression one receives is the splendour, evoked by the array of colours. Gold or “yellow”, blue and green, were the colours reserved for the monarch. The lower classes, to even ponder using these hues meant death.

The use ramps or bridges, within the complex, segregating royalty, emissaries and the common folk is profound. The architecture is a virtual reflection of the tomb we visited the previous morning. In both locations, the architecture commands obedience.

We travel back to the Hotel where Maria joins us to visit the Beijing Observatory. This Observatory was completed in 1422. It kind of stands similar to an Aztec pyramid shape on a piece of land between major motorways. In fact, we travelled a figure ∞ to get across to it in the cab. From the start Michael is all a-flutter. Once inside the gate at a cost of ¥10 each ($2.50) we enter a sanctum of peace and tranquillity from the outside hustle and bustle. The original instruments were moved from the original observatory on this site to Nanjing (the then capital of China) in 1279 and copies were made for this observatory. Instruments on display include:
- An armillary sphere used to measure the coordinates of the celestial bodies consists of two
bronze disks - the ecliptic armillary (for tracking the sun), and the equatorial armillary (tracks bodies that are not the sun).
- A quadrant built in 1673 and used in order to measures the altitudes and zenith locations of the celestial bodies.
- A theodolite built in 1715 and used for measuring both altitude and azimuth coordinates of celestial bodies. The azimuth theodolite is similar recording only the azimuth.
- An astronomical sextant is used to measure the angular distance between celestial bodies, and also used for measuring the angular
diameter of the moon and sun.
- A celestial globe built in 1673 and used to determine the time in which the celestial bodies will rise and set; as well as the altitude and azimuth of the bodies at any given time.
Then it off to the Pearl Markets where after much massaging of our egos and haggling on our parts we picked up a little something for an event in March – no Gen, we are NOT telling you and who says it is for you anyway??? J Back on the streets, we are led past waiting cabs by Jack who warns us that these ones won’t use the meter and target (particularly western) tourists.

One of the things we really wanted to see while in Beijing was the Hutongs. Hutong translates as ‘small street between buildings’. These are the traditional living quarters of the former Beijing population. We hop aboard a pedicab with Jack in another leading ours. It seems that our poor rider struggles at times with the two of us aboard! The streets are very narrow and twist this way then that, at times, doubling back on themselves. We arrive at Dajinsi Hutong where we are welcomed into one by the English speaking granddaughter. It is obvious that this hutong has been done up and our little guide, after serving us green tea proudly explains that their hutong was one of those approved for visitors during the Olympic Games.
In the past, up to 16 people would have lived in this small set of buildings around an inner courtyard. Now, there are just 3. The hutongs are laid out accordingly to Feng Shui principles with the elders living in the northern building, the son and his family in the eastern building, the daughter and family in the western and the servants in the southern building that is generally hotter in summer and colder in winter. Mind you, to describe them as buildings is very generous – most are 2 -3 small rooms. Of surprise to us and most other foreigners I would think is the fact that none of the hutong homes have toilets – all the inhabitants use public toilets!
The great-grandfather, who worked in the Forbidden City, was held in high esteem which is demonstrated by the 5 steps up into the main hutong building (most are 2 steps). After a quick tour of the buildings including a photo in the wedding room (bedroom) we are again off. The ever present hawkers try to sell us postcards until Jack curtly tells them off!

We weave through this district of hutongs, along the frozen Houhai Lake and past all the bars that are packed in summer, but now busy doing lots of renovations. By this point, the temperature was beginning its nightly downward trend and we are feeling decidedly cool, so back to the Hotel to get warmer clothing and use an ATM.

We set out for our evening, starting with the huge Tiananmen Square between the Tiananmen Gate, Mao Tse Tung's Mausoleum, the Beijing Museum and the Great Hall of the People - the House of Congress. The sheer scale of the square is breathtaking. One million people can fit comfortably into the area that is centered with the Monument to the Peoples Heroes - the Chinese equivalent of our War Memorial. By night it is a place that commands reflection. We manage to get a photo of Jack here! And he takes one of Michael and I in the beanies from our Maryborough Mates! Thanks - they are coming in handy already.

Then it is off to see the Chao Yang Theatre Chinese Acrobatic Show. Absolutely mesmerising – with lithe bodies contorting to all sorts of shapes. There are child and adult acrobats in a performance that is theatrical and sensuous.
Following the show, we invite Jack to have a meal with us. Originally, we are keen to go to the night food markets, but Jack explains that these are not at all authentic, being established purely for the tourist market and that most Beijing inhabitants would not consider eating the ‘delicacies’ on offer! So we ask to try dumplings and he tells us that the restaurant next to the theatre is known for their steamed bun. So off we go and eat like kings again – steamed buns that are nothing like the sweet ones we know in Australia, pork balls – huge, lighter than air meat balls, sweet and sour pork – again not all like we usually get (not so sickly) and a diced beef and fermented bean dish that is heavily laced with chilli – too hot for Maria but loved by Michael. Plus rice and OJ all for under $25!

Then it is time to say goodbye to Jack. He comes very highly recommended by us. Very affordable as well with the 36 hour service costing under $100. We are more than happy to give him a well deserved tip. We decide to update the blog and have a leisurely breakfast the next morning before leaving the hotel at 11 am for the airport and out flight out at 2.35 pm. Our very short but totally memorable tantalising first taste of Beijing has cost us under $1,000 all up!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter - who said bring it on - surely not me!!

It was lovely to have family to farewell us at the airport. Mum, Damien and Donna (on her birthday) and Garry came. Tony and Kerrie Sacco had come over to Netta's to say goodbye just before we left. We were lucky enough to get side seats - a window and aisle, so there were no embarrassing moments crawling out over strangers to get to the loo - whew! We had a beautifully memorable departure from Sydney with an almost full moon rising majestically over the City lights - it was just stunning - pity the camera was in the overhead locker!

The plane was chockers and included quite a number of small children who were not at all happy to be travelling. Consequently, we did not sleep on the plane much. Despite that, we were too excited to be tired when we landed at Beijing this morning as scheduled at 5:40 am. This airport is now the biggest in the world. We arrived at Gate 513!!! Luggage is all delivered to the central terminal, so we caught the train across. I got plenty of stares and comments in my summer top as it was -9º! However, it was bliss after a very hot plane flight. Don’t worry – it only lasted to the front door where I quickly put on a jacket in the wind.

Our guide Peter met us at the arrival hall and we moved out to the car park to be greeted not only by a car, but with a driver in addition to the guide. Mr Maa was very obviously used to driving in the City and had been a taxi driver. It would have been suicide to try to drive ourselves – literally! They use the horn for everything and we soon were able to decipher the basics – one blast for here I come, two for here I come – NOW, three for here and I am and so on. No one uses their indicator and they cut in front of each other at will – often literally with cms to spare.

We headed for the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall of China. When asked if we could go to Mutianyu instead, Peter explained that it was in the north east and Badaling was in the north west just outside Beijing. To also see the Ming Tombs, we would need to go to Badaling as we would not have enough time to do both otherwise. So, Badaling it was. Amazingly the moon was still high in the sky on our left and the sun rising brightly (orange presumably due to the smog) on our right. They balanced each other, hanging evenly over the horizon.

We arrived about 8 am, busting to go to the toilet. As the Ming Tombs were not open until 8:30 am, I thought that was a great time to ask to use the bathroom. After much consultation between Peter and Mr Maa, we were driven a short distance to Jing Tomb Village located below the Chang Ling Tombs and shown in to the communal toilets. Well, if there ever was anything to stifle the toilet urge, here it was. If I ever thought that squat toilets were a little daunting, the sight of fully iced in toilets that had only dissolved where the warmer urine hit the ice, certainly cured any need! Too bad I didn’t have the camera around my neck (it would have been very bad form to go and get the camera for a rather unique photo).

There has been recent snow and the ground is quite icy, making walking a cautious exercise for me particularly. It was somewhat disheartening to see the poorness of the local village. Despite the cold (and it is to get colder yet), the homes are quite ramshackle and do not appear to be tight against the cold. The air is thick with the smell of burning timber fires from inside the dwellings.

The Ming Tombs are amazing. For us in Australia, the time scale is almost incomprehensible. We visited the Chang Ling tomb – the only one that is fully open to the public. This is the tomb of the Yongle emperor (reign 1403-1424). The layout is identical to the tomb of the first Ming emperor in Nanjing. Most impressive is the Ling'en Dian - an immense hall supported by 60 huge timber columns left unpainted to create an eye-catching contrast with the green ceiling panels. This hall houses a museum to the emperor and his court. A 3 level plaza around the tomb is constructed of white marble and features the dragon symbolising the Emperor.

We then visit a local Jade Factory. There is a master carver working on a generation ball carved from a single piece of jade. It takes about 7 hours to carve a 5 generation ball (5 balls inside each other). Much of the jade on display is made in a larger factory outside the town. I buy a small souvenir pendant and later realise that I probably paid too much. Learn to apply patience and clear thinking is the lesson of the day.

From here we drove to the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. And if we had thought it cold before, add a wind chill factor and it was heading for -20ºC. Out came the Drizabones, the beanies, scarves and gloves. There is a very steep climb up from the car park. Being wooses, we opt to take the cable car. Now THAT in itself was an experience and a half. Can you imagine being suspended over cavernous mountains and about 100m above the valley floor with a wind gusting to 15 knots? Didn’t think I could either – but been there done that now. Couldn’t take any photos on the way up – too busy hanging on for dear life!

Once on top, the wind is ready to take you to the heavens. Michael is keen to climb the Wall, but ice on the steps warns me otherwise. I happily watch him clamber up and down taking many photos from my vantage point at the top. After about 1.5 hours we head back down to the car where Peter and Mr Maa have waited in the warm.

From here they want lunch – we just want sleep – but our guides have been working since 5:30 am so we agree to stop for them. They take us to a cloisonné factory where they can also get some lunch. Very interesting, but no purchases – we are already savvy to the suspected practices of guides in taking western tourists to factory outlets on the pretext of cheap sales. Later we find our fears to be well founded when we can buy pieces in our Beijing Hotel for a fraction of the price.

After a quick tour around the Olympic Village including a photo stop, we head for our hotel – the Novotel Peace Hotel in the centre of Beijing. After quickly unloading all our baggage to one of the porters, Peter and Mr Maa leave. The hotel lobby is so warm and welcoming after the chill of outside. We are upgraded to a Premier Room on the 16th floor where the view would be amazing if it wasn’t for the smog. We are about 3 blocks from Tiananmen Square and cannot see the high rise buildings on the other side because the smog is so thick. Yet, when you ask the Chinese, they assure you it is getting much better! Make us appreciate the air quality at home.

Before leaving Maryborough, we had contacted an English speaking guide on EBay. Jack has been guiding for 5 years and was very pleasant in all our dealings. I phone him to tell him we have arrived at the hotel (now 3 pm local time / 5 pm Qld time / 6 pm NSW time). He has reserved tickets to the Peking Opera at the Li Yuan Theatre for us tonight and we arrange to meet him here at 6:40 pm so we can take a sleep. After a 25 minute taxi ride costing ¥17 ($4.25) we arrive in time to see the actors putting on their makeup. We have purchased premier seats at ¥480 each that gives us stage side seats at a table with jasmine tea and more nibbles than we can consume. Two short stories are presented – Hu Village and Eighteen Arhats Fighting Wu Kong - very entertaining presentations that include singing, dialogue, acrobatics and dancing. This opera has its roots in southern China where it dates back more than 1,000 years.

Afterwards, we ask Jack to take us somewhere for a traditional Chinese meal. He explains that the traditional meal consists of a dish each plus rice and tells us that noodles are a ‘fast food’ in Beijing. A chicken dish with onions and nuts all diced into 1 cm pieces in a mild chilli sauce and a shredded pork dish with tofu pancakes plus rice, jasmine tea and a coke for Jack total ¥83. And he apologises because the exchange rate means that instead of paying $A15, it has cost a total of just over $A20!

It is now 10 pm and we are knackered, so off to bed as Jack is meeting us around 9:30 am tomorrow.